Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ 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.
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.