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Saturday, October 09, 2004

Thoughts on Derrida

Via Crooked Timber comes the news that Jacques Derrida, the "father of deconstruction," has passed away of pancreatic cancer. Jack Balkin's comments on Derrida's passing are worth reading; no doubt many other philosophers will add their remembrances in the days to come. Let me just say something about Derrida's impact on me as I once was, the political philosopher as a young man.

In 1991, I was attending Brigham Young University, and dealing with a great deal of intellectual and emotional baggage. (Or, at least, it seemed like a lot at the time, though in retrospect it probably wasn't all that different from what any number of other frustrated and unhappy young men carry around inside them on college campuses.) I had a relatively clear idea of where I wanted to go--spiritually, academically, emotionally--but I didn't seem to have the tools to get there. A friend of mine (Matt Stannard; read his own very thoughtful tribute to Derrida here) recommended I take some philosophy courses with him; perhaps that would help me find some sort of intellectual foothold. I agreed, and the class I ended up taking was on philosophy and literature, taught by a great and good man, one James E. Faulconer. In that class, we became acquainted with a great deal of structuralist and poststructuralist thought; we talked about the history of Biblical hermeneutics, and the philosophy of history as well; and most importantly, we were introduced to two rival schools of interpretation: philosophical hermeneutics, represented by Hans-Georg Gadamer, and deconstruction, represented by Derrida.

The class didn't solve all or really any of my problems, I should add. (Indeed, most of my hang-ups just got worse in the months and years which followed.) But it did engage me in a world of thinking that permanently altered my perspective, for the better. People often knock "theory" as a component of knowledge; the whole idea complicating a text or argument or event by applying theoretical constructs (or de-constructs) which emphasize the contingency or divisions or hidden implications and presumptions in any account of such can drive folks interested in "practicality" or "praxis" (however you define that) batty. I can certain bash theory, and have done so on numerous occasions. But I am nonetheless extremely grateful to have been introduced to Derrida and all the rest of those thinkers, because for me, at least, it was important to be able to get away from the sterility of certain habits of thought, and to be able to theoretically look back over an argument and see it as something which I and my perspective of things was intractably, yet ambiguously, connected to, rather than as something wholly external to myself. (Yes, I know Derrida was hardly the first to make this point; the critique of the Enlightenment is as old as the Enlightenment itself. But these postmodernists and deconstructivists were the first I'd ever heard of it.)

As for Derrida's ideas themselves, I was never much of a fan. I was always far more sympathetic to the use which hermeneutic thinkers like Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Charles Taylor and others made of Martin Heidegger's legacy than to Derrida's and other French thinkers' use of it. You could call this (as many have) a "conservative" appropriation; I prefer to see it as a more sensible approach to Heidegger's greatest theme, which is also the theme of many of the German romantics and pietists: namely, worldhood, or the question (and, therefore, moral meaning and significance) of being in the world. Heidegger sought to (through his examinations of language, art, and other media) get us thinking about how it is that we appear as we are; to put it in extremely simplistic terms, he wanted us to focus on what it means to understand existing as something given (es gibt--"there is/gives"), meaning that there is something more to beings than that which they literally "appear" to be, or (once again, more carefully) than that which in its appearance we (again, through language and our own thinking) appropriate as our own (what Heidegger called ereignen). Deconstruction, as it spread beyond philosophy and to numerous other disciplines--law, psychology, architecture, and especially literature--didn't hold onto or express this fundamental ontological insight very well, in my view: as I read works influenced by Derrida, or indeed by Derrida himself, it seemed that the drive to expunge foundations too easily replaced the need to rethink foundations: his greatest Heideggerian contribution to the study of language--his employ of the formerly theological, even metaphysical term "trace" to refer to the effaced thing signified by a text, the sign or symbol of which both delimits and also defers it--became in the hands of many, and perhaps his own, simply an excuse for play. The seriousness of that play, in the sense that it invites consideration of how it is that through speaking we become players in a world which is both prior to and in excess of ourselves, didn't seem to me to come through nearly as well as it should have. (The clearest example of this is, I think, the strange failed "encounter" between Gadamer and Derrida at a conference in Paris in 1981, during which--as well as after--Gadamer struggled to understand Derrida's evaluation of hermeneutics, without any comparable apparent interest on Derrida's part. This book has all the relevant texts from the encounter.)

I admit, however, that I may have misinterpreted Derrida. I don't speak French, after all. And perhaps I've allowed the rather jovial pragmatic nihilism of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, who both so often adopt a Derrida-like pose, to poison my appreciation of his particular approach to the spirit and ethical form of rethinking. My old teacher, Jim Faulconer, has always insisted that there is more going on in Derrida's play than most American interpreters (at least after the initial rush of Derrida enthusiasm in the 1980s began to wane) recognize; to Jim, Derrida--though not a theist--in recent years became a religious thinker of the highest order, a man who was helping to bring the sensibility of negative theology back to philosophy. As he put it:

There are two moments in negative theology. One is to discover and to say as accurately as possible the right names and descriptions of the Divine. Paradoxically, the second is to show that these names are inadequate. For example, one must say 'God is just'; it is blasphemy to say otherwise. Nevertheless, once that is established, it is also true that the sentence is inadequate; from the point of view of a claim to have said the complete and final truth, it is untrue. For, we only know what justice is by using our own justice as a reference point. However, God's justice surpasses ours, so much so that it is inadequate to use the same name for it. Thus one must also say, 'God is not just' -- but readers must take care how they read what looks like a simple denial of God's justice. The negative theologian recognizes the absolute necessity of speaking about God....He worries, however, that our theology may give us the impression that we are now done with thinking about God; we may believe, at least implicitly, that our knowledge has encompassed the infinite. So the negative theologian reminds us of God's infinity by showing us the failure of our affirmative theology. The point is not that there is no God or that God is, in a straightforward sense, not just, but that we must continue to speak of God, to praise him, to wonder at his justice....The common assumption of deconstruction and negative theology is that language necessarily 'fails' to say everything, to remember everything, but that it nevertheless says something, even something about what it fails to recover....Derrida is interested in this 'logic' of saying and not saying, of inclusion and exclusion, of presence and absence, of speaking and silence, of memory and forgetting....Derrida continues to be concerned, though he is not a theist: 'I am addressing myself here to God, the only one I take as a witness, without yet knowing what these sublime words mean, and this grammar, and to, and witness, and god, and take, take God, and not only do I pray, as I have never stopped doing all my life, and pray to him, but I take him here and take him as my witness, I give myself what he gives me, i.e. the i.e. to take the time to take God as a witness.' (Circumfession, 56-58)

In the last several years, at least partly because of the many misunderstandings of his work (misunderstandings for which he admits some responsibility), Derrida has been explicit about this focus on absence and omission as an ethical focus. Like negative theology, his work is not nihilistic or merely playful....Ultimately, Derrida's work is ethical. The point of deconstruction is to help us remember what the text calls us to remember but then forgets by its very nature. Deconstruction calls us to the act of remembering, wonder, and praise, and in that to a remembering relation to what we have forgotten rather than to the descriptions of what we have forgotten....As Derrida [writes]: 'What we have said about writing and the trace shows that no autos is possible without an inscription of alterity, no inside without a relation to an outside which cannot be simply outside but must remark itself on the inside.' (Circumfession, 47-48)

The comparison to negative theology is strong...[Derrida] does not believe that deconstruction can, by showing us our ethical and other kinds of omissions, make it possible to exclude no one. As Derrida explains, pure hospitality, including everyone is impossible. Actual hospitality requires decision, discrimination. That discrimination, always a limit on hospitality, on inclusion, is indispensable. The point is not the end of exclusion and forgetting, but our thought about them. The point is for us to face those omissions and exclusions and, through facing them, to rethink what we are about.

Jacques Derrida, negative theologian? A not implausible conclusion, I suppose. My preference will remain with the romantics and their intellectual descendents, who accepted the political and moral problem of subjectivity bequeathed by modernity, and earnestly tried to find foundations, or rethink foundations, in the context of the sublime, naive, revelatory, linguistic, "appearing" experience of being in the world. But if that's simply too heavy (too German?) for you, perhaps one can find the same attempt to think about first things in the midst of Derrida's slippery, challenging, effervescent play. Requiescat in pace.


Anonymous said...

Russell, if you wish a slightly different take on the Gadamer/Derrida exchange, I'd strongly suggest Behler's Confrontations: Derrida, Heidegger, Nietzsche. He spends a section on that debate and provides a fairly clear and persuasive argument for why Derrida had to respond the way he did. The analysis is part of a larger analysis of Derrida, but is very illuminating I think.  

Posted by Clark Goble

Anonymous said...

An absolutely wonderful post that reminds us why Derrida was and continuese to be an important thinker. Your point about not reading French reminds me of a story. At one point, I had a housemate who was in Comp. Lit., with French as one of her languages (also Russian, Polish, Arabic, Armenian). She read lots of French theory and couldn't understand why the rest of us in the house struggled with Derrida, Focoult, etc. etc.. Onde day she picked up my copy of something in English and started reading it. "No wonder your having trouble," she exclaimed, "this makes no sense!" In French, apparently, it is all reasonably clear. What we need, then, are better translations. One dares to say, Americanized translations (Walter Benjamin where are you when we need you?) or conceptual translations that are less faithful to the original idiomatic language and more faithful to the readers of English.  

Posted by David Salmanson