Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Eternal deconstruction of the same

Mainly at Larval Subjects and An Und Fur Sich, the debate rages again over Derrida. You’d think we’d have moved on by now, but clearly, something about Derrida makes him a magnet for this sort of controversy.

Unlike many people, I find a lot of Derrida a pleasure to read, and quite rigorous. In particular I loved (and still do) “Envoi” in The Post Card, and Limited Inc., —not everyone’s favorites. Thankfully, I fairly quickly gave up the bad imitations of Derrida’s writing that I attempted.

One thing always puzzled me about his ultra-enthusiasts, though. What was the point of arguing about Hegel, or Austin, or Heidegger, or etc. etc., unless what Hegel (or etc.) said mattered? And if it mattered, how did it matter? It mattered because the books Derrida was commenting upon engaged the world. This was what I often felt was lost upon those who were busy impressing their professors with how they could twist the text du jour to say what it didn’t mean. You could argue with puns and eloquence that black was white, or that the whole binary opposition was untenable, or whatever, but this was boring, boring, boring, unless there was black and white (whether distinguishable or not); if instead you were arguing about bregh and shmilv, I won’t care. Why? Because what the hell are bregh and shmilv? These dada terms are here a reductio meant to show that, whatever Derrida may be taken to have meant, he did not mean that language was all there was. Derrida could make one listen about Hegel on the family or the Trinity, about Heidegger on technology or spirit, about Husserl about the origin of geometry, because we can do things with these terms—whether “there is” spirit or not, the term “spirit” signifies; it hooks into all sorts of practices, in a way that “bregh” and “shmilv” do not. (Though I have no doubt Derrida would have taken this argument and turned it on its head.)

Was Derrida a realist? Wasn’t he? Did he think the whole question was a pseudo-problem? I think it is fair to say that Derrida cultivated ambiguity, not out of mere perversity (though he would probably say that there was nothing “mere” about perversity), but because he thought that ambiguity was of the essence of questions like this—and indeed, of the essence of what the questions were about. Yes, Derrida is a renegade phenomenologist, and phenomenology was supposed to point us “to the things themselves;” but for Derrida, at least the Derrida that enchanted me (which is not to say that I stayed enchanted forever) the notion of “itself” is precisely what needed to be questioned. What this means in the current context is that the very notion of Derrida having one position, “deconstruction itself,” is crying out for deconstruction.

But it is certainly fair to say that Derrida was not often read as “a realist” for a very long time, by either his detractors or his defenders (at least, not in America, where for a generation he was read more by literature majors than philosophy students); and was indeed often read as an idealist without the idealism.

Whether Derrida’s was “really” a realist is in one sense obviously a matter of conjecture now, and in another sense, a shockingly unDerridean question, no matter what answer you’re angling for. Convincing readings can be made in many directions, as should not surprise a Derridean; so much so that, I admit, the question of what Derrida’s “real position” was seems idle to me. What is of interest is whether one can make use of Derrida’s formidable oeuvre in a way that abets the realist cause (if that’s what you want).

But partisans of Derrida (and I am one) are in no position to argue that anyone merely “misreads” deconstruction, since the practical upshot of deconstruction is that there is no such thing as the reading of a text. We don’t need to be in such a position, because we can just as easily counter that we have a more interesting reading, and we are free to use words like “truer” or “more faithful” for “more interesting,” precisely on Derridean grounds. The way to make a “realist”-friendly view of Derrida more common is to show it in practice: not to argue “this is what Derrida really meant,” but to show how the resources of deconstruction make possible interesting realist engagements with the world.

And the thing is, as the defenders of Derrida from the infamous charges of "textualism" have been showing, that's really not so hard to do.

In my opinion the really interesting question is, what makes Derrida still such a strange attractor for this sort of argument? And I think it has to do with what I mentioned before-- his intimation that there's a radical ambiguity in the very heart of the real. This is more unsettling than just irrealism or anti-realism. It's the hint that the real itself could be indescribable in realist terms.


  1. We're all realists now and even Derrida has been proposed as a member. The serious question is; how could anyone tell? I'd never read him, no not a line so having read your post I thought I'd find out what the fuss was about. There's a link to Grammatology on the wikipedia derrida. De gustibus non est disputandum, big time. I'm inoculated.

  2. I wonder how you negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of

    "It mattered because the books Derrida was commenting upon engaged the world."


    "so much so that, I admit, the question of what Derrida’s “real position” was seems idle to me."

    Sorry for quoting fragments of your description, but I know no brief way to pointedly put it. My question is this. If a THING matters merely because it "engages" the world, then doesn't calling a question that "engages" the blogo world onto the carpet as idle seems to lose its footing, don't you say?

    If the question of whether Derrida REALLY was a Realist engages the world, isn't this a proof of its relevance, in the way that supposedly Hegel matters, and so much other debate matters.

  3. ombhurbhuva: No doubt, some don't get bit by the JD-bug. All I can say is, he pushed the question of ambiguity very far for me, in a way that kept my interest. I don't say that there were no excesses (there were all too many), but the risks he took paid off enough that he made a real mark, even though his misses may have been more than his hits. After all, so were (arguably) MacDiarmid's and even maybe Pound's.

    kvond: You're right, it is a question of Scylla and Charybdis. What I meant by the former sentence was that many of D's acolytes seemed to miss the point of reading him, and to fall right into the condemnation voiced by his worst critics: namely, that deconstruction was nothing but self-referential word-games. As to the latter question: it's not that I think one can't usefully ask the question as to whether D. can be read as a realist; I just think a much better way of making one's case that he can is to use deconstruction to realist ends, rather than just to say, "Derrida is a realist! he says so here, in Limited Inc!" Now I realize that much more than this is being contended, and of course one does need to present some textual warrant for why one can read Derrida as a support at all for this sort of project. (And of course comment threads, or even blog posts, are not the most accommodating setting to make such a case.) I happen to agree that Derrida is far more amenable to being read as a realist than a lot of people-- by the look of things, it could even be a majority at present-- seem to think; and I favor that reading myself. I think he writes about Europe, about forgiveness, about consciousness, about all sorts of things including, yes, language, but what I take him to have argued, or even at times to have assumed-- and here I verge upon what is central to my own project-- is that all these concerns mutually ramify each other; there's no question of "realism itself" which could be addressed completely apart from the questions of (say) atheism, or ethics, or the idea of human rights, or the origin of geometry. Which is to say, any conclusion one draws anywhere at all is bound to be provisional and revisable. Ye gods! could it be that Derrida and Popper agree on something? Talk about perverse.

  4. Another point I should add: JD would not have been content to leave things at "always provisional, never final." Because he was well aware that the answering antithesis in this dialectic was: sometimes you must decide. Forgive or not? Judge or not? "Abraham, take your son, your only son...." Derrida's thought unfolds between impossible deferral on the one hand, and the impossible now on the other. And if I had to improvise a motto for deconstruction, I might think one could do worse than: "Just because it's impossible doesn't mean thought can dispense with it."

  5. But partisans of Derrida (and I am one) are in no position to argue that anyone merely “misreads” deconstruction, since the practical upshot of deconstruction is that there is no such thing as the reading of a text

    I'm not sure I can go that far. Recall that Derrida stated emphatically the following:

    [L]et it be said in passing how surprised I have often been, how amused or discouraged, depending on my humor, by the use or abuse of the following argument: Since the deconstructionist (which is to say, isn't it, the skeptical-relativist-nihilist!) is supposed to not believe in truth, stability, or the unity of meaning, in intention or "meaning-to-say," how can he demand of us now that we read him with pertinence, precision, rigor? How can he demand that his own text be interpreted correctly? How can he accuse anyone else of having misunderstood, simplified, deformed it, etc.? In other words, how can he discuss, and discuss the reading of what he writes? The answer is simple enough: This definition of the deconstructionist is false (that's right: false, not true) and feeble; it supposes a bad (that's right: bad, not good) and feeble reading of numerous texts, first of all mine, which therefore must finally be read or reread. (Derrida, Limited Inc, 146)

  6. Hi Clark, and welcome.

    I am glad someone picked up on this. While I do believe that the caricature of Derrida as having "no" position at all (and therefore being oh-so-slippery and not being amendable to simply being contradicted) is, well, just that-- a caricature-- I still think it does not come from out of the blue. Even the worst of mistakes have some grounds-- as Derrida himself remarks about Nietzsche, yes it's true that Nietzsche would have vomited at the Nazi appropriation of his work, but there was something about him that made him and not, say, Kant or Schelling (or even Heidegger!) appeal to National Socialism, which chose Nietzsche and no other thinker to misread in this way.

    My grounds for such an apparently provocative comparison may seem weak; I only mean to say that Derrida's enemies (or just those who are glad to see the academy have done with his baneful influence) may be over-reacting and even reading him poorly, but they are not jumping at shadows. Derrida does a great deal to call into question such things as final readings or last interpretations, and when he put forward some very controversial readings in such a way as clearly to provoke protests-- "but this is obviously not what the text means!"-- he then responded to such protests with an elegant, "but can you rule it out?"

    I grant you, I am not citing you chapter and verse here, though his squirm-making defense of Paul de Man comes to mind. You are right: Derrida does indeed insist that there is such a thing as better & worse reading, indeed, as good and bad reading. I would go so far as to say that a lot of what we have been getting lately have been "weak misreadings" (as Bloom would call them) of Derrida, such as he decries in your excerpt. I just think that when he expresses "surprise," a guy as smart as him might have been able to come up with some explanation that was better than just attributing either bad faith or laziness to his (mis)readers. He didn't make it easy on them, after all.

    But I say all this as (on balance) a fan of Derrida. I might add, too, that while I don't really buy into the "Derrida lost his nerve and became a Kantian idealist under the influence of Levinas" line that Zizek is credited with (i.e., another weak misreading), I am more familiar with the early work, which is what people are usually talking about when they complain of D's "textualism." So yes, I put things bit too strongly when I implied that Derrida was not being mis-read and that reading rightly was beside the point for deconstruction, and I am pleased you called me on it. I do think that the reading of Derrida as a "mere" textualist is a weak ("feeble") and uninteresting one. I am much more interested in the Peircean resonances (but spun through Hegel and Husserl and Heidegger and Levinas) whereby it isn't that signs are everything, but rather than everything is a sign.