As Dirk Bogarde ringingly declared in Providence, “Surely the facts are not in dispute.”
Perhaps there was some sort of struggle, M. Derrida being so “notoriously difficult and all. But Jonathan Kanall has barely begun the ideological autopsy.
Deconstruction asserts no such thing. A critical method developed to examine all manner of literary and philosophical texts, Deconstruction is at heart very much in keeping with every other critical methodology. “Absolute Meaning” was indeed questioned by Derrida but to say that “truthfulness” and “permanence” were tossed to the four winds is a grotesque parody of what he was actually doing. And what Jacques Derrida was actually doing is the very thing all serious critics, historians, and philosophers should do — examining and questioning what has actually been said, done and written down.
Literary critics broke texts into isolated passages and phrases to find hidden meanings.
Aha — a troublemaker! Kind of like Noam Chomsky dressed up in Jean-Paul Sartre drag for Halloween — scaring the neighborhood kiddies by playing Juliette Greco records at full blast while passing out pain au chocolat instead of Snickers and M & Ms !
And as The Woodman has long been the capo di tutte capi of what the NYT considers worthy one can guess that he not so entitled his film the paper wouldn’t have bothered with such an extensive obit.
Typical of Mr. Derrida’s murky explanations of his philosophy was a 1993 paper he presented at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in New York, which began: “Needless to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible.”
OOooooo – Slippery! Murky! “Unwilling – some say unable – to define deconstruction with any precision” — as if a critical process could be summed up in a sentence. Or better still, a sound-byte. Something suitable that the average television entertainment “news” host (eg. Billy Bush) could mouth without looking more stupid than he ordinarily does.
Or simply of no interest to anyone unfamiliar with the writings of Sassure, Plato, Freud and Joyce — the subjects of the books cited above.
That’s how the stupid “understand.”
Intellect being synonymous to rebellion at the NYT.
Or at least certain sections of the NYT. Recently Whittaker Chambers biographer Sam Tanenhaus was put in charge of the paper’s Sunday Book Review, promising to make changes via longer and more thoughtful reviews. And he would appear to be living up to this promise what with Walter Kirn’s thoughful and incisive piece on a new collection of Jack Kerouac’s writings and a review of Kitty Kelley’s book on the Bush dynasty by Ted Widmer that offers a welcome correction to Michiko Kakutani’s smug hatchet job. Consequently one hopes that Tanenhaus will find someone with something serious to say about Derrida in the near future.
Meanwhile. . .
But he could be an indifferent student. He failed his baccalaureate in his first attempt. He twice failed his entrance exam to the École Normal Supérieure, the traditional cradle of French intellectuals, where he was finally admitted in 1952. There he failed the oral portion of his final exams on his first attempt.
That’s “Normale” (note the e) And there is no final exam. Only a very tough competitive entrance exam (“concours”) And failing it once or several
times is more the rule than the exception.
By the early 1960’s, Mr. Derrida had made a name for himself as a rising young intellectual in Paris by publishing articles on language and philosophy in leading academic journals. He was especially influenced by the German philosophers, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Both were strong critics of traditional metaphysics, a branch of philosophy which explored the basis and perception of reality.
As a lecturer, Mr. Derrida cultivated charisma and mystery. For many years, he declined to be photographed for publication. He cut a dashing, handsome figure at the lectern, with his thick thatch of prematurely white hair, tanned complexion, and well-tailored suits. He peppered his lectures with puns, rhymes and enigmatic pronouncements, like, “Thinking is what we already know that we have not yet begun,” or, “Oh my friends, there is no friend…”
As anyone who has read Derrida’s Politics of Friendship knows, “Oh my friends, there is no friend…” is not a statement made by him, but rather by Aristotle.
Being secure in its absolute authority, the NYT knows its target readership won’t bother to check. After all, they’re reading this obit the better to impress their friends with notion that they know “all about Derrida.”
“The trouble with reading Mr. Derrida is that there is too much perspiration for too little inspiration,” editorialized The Economist in 1992, when Cambridge University awarded the philosopher an honorary degree after a bruising argument among his supporters and critics on the faculty. Elsewhere in Europe, Mr. Derrida’s deconstruction philosophy gained earlier and easier acceptance.
Because thoughtful and attentive readers discovered just how much fun Derrida could be — Glas being a perfect example. It’s a philosophical-literary vaudeville, much on the order of a Frank Tashlin or Joe Dante movie.
Mr. Derrida shocked his American audience by announcing that structuralism was already passé in France, and that Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s ideas were too rigid. Instead, Mr. Derrida offered deconstruction as the new, triumphant philosophy.
His presentation fired up young professors who were in search of a new intellectual movement to call their own. In a Los Angeles Times Magazine article in 1991, Mr. Stephens, the journalism professor, wrote: “He gave literature professors a special gift: a chance to confront – not as mere second-rate philosophers, not as mere interpreters of novelists, but as full-fledged explorers in their own right – the most profound paradoxes of Western thought.”
“If they really read, if they stared intently enough at the metaphors,” he went on, “literature professors, from the comfort of their own easy chairs, could reveal the hollowness of the basic assumptions that lie behind all our writings.” Other critics found it disturbing that obscure academics could presume to denigrate a Sophocles, Voltaire or Tolstoy by seeking out cultural biases and inexact language in their masterpieces. “Literature, the deconstructionists frequently proved, had been written by entirely the wrong people for entirely the wrong reasons,” wrote Malcolm Bradbury, a British novelist and professor, in a 1991 article for The New York Times Book Review.
You can see where this is leading. Interdisciplinary madness I tell you! Literature teachers having as much authority as philosophy professors!
Students asking questions! Dogs and cats living together!
But in 1987, four years after Mr. de Man’s death, research revealed that he had written over 170 articles in the early 1940’s for Le Soir, a Nazi newspaper in Belgium. Some of these articles were openly anti-Semitic, including one that echoed Nazi calls for “a final solution” and seemed to defend the notion of concentration camps.
“A solution to the Jewish problem that aimed at the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would entail no deplorable consequences for the literary life of the West,” wrote Mr. de Man.
The revelations became a major scandal at Yale and other campuses where the late Mr. de Man had been lionized as an intellectual hero. Some former colleagues asserted that the scandal was being used to discredit deconstruction by people who were always hostile to the movement. But Mr. Derrida gave fodder to critics by defending Mr. de Man, and even using literary deconstruction techniques in an attempt to demonstrate that the Belgian scholar’s newspaper articles were not really anti-Semitic.
This was indeed a great scandale. Derrida’s enemies felt that (like Ken Starr with that blue cum-stained dress from the GAP) they at last “had him.” But in his Memoires for Paul de Man Derrida declined to denounce his dead friend the long-accepted neo-Stalinist manner of American anti-intellectual thuggery — which would have required him to “renounce” his ways and confess like other “troublemakers” deemed by these characters to be a “witch” or “sorcerer.”
To anyone with any knowledge of what was actually fairly recent history this was no overnight “revelation” at all. But then Derrida’s enemies were in the habit of conflating his interest in Heidegger’s writings with an uncritical embrace
of them and him which was scarcely the case as anyone who has bothered to read Derrida well knows.
Gee somebody should have told those universities that Derrida was over !
Mr. Derrida also became far more accessible to the media. He sat still for photos and gave interviews that stripped away his formerly mysterious aura to reveal the mundane details of his personal life.
A former Yale student, Amy Ziering Kofman, focused on him in a 2002 documentary, “Derrida,” that some reviewers found charming. “With his unruly white hair and hawklike face, Derrida is a compelling presence even when he is merely pondering a question,” wrote Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times. “Even his off-the-cuff comments are intriguing, because everything gets serious consideration. And when he is wary, he’s never difficult for its own sake but because his philosophical positions make him that way.”
The results are on view in the delightful film Kofman Ziering co-directed with Kirby Dick He is also the subject of another documentary entitled Ghost Dance Ken McMullen’s Rivette-inspired jape on cargo cults with Pascale Ogier and Leonie Mellinger.
As a young man, Mr. Derrida confessed, he hoped to become a professional soccer player. And he admitted to being an inveterate viewer of television, watching everything from news to soap operas. “I am critical of what I’m watching,” said Mr. Derrida with mock pride. “I deconstruct all the time.”
Late in his career, Mr. Derrida was asked, as he had been so often, what deconstruction was. “Why don’t you ask a physicist or a mathematician about difficulty?” he replied, frostily, to Dinitia Smith, a Times reporter, in a 1998. “Deconstruction requires work. If deconstruction is so obscure, why are the audiences in my lectures in the thousands? They feel they understand enough to understand more.”
Asked later in the same interview to at least define deconstruction, Mr. Derrida said: “It is impossible to respond. I can only do something which will leave me unsatisfied.”
And the NYT can’t leave its target readers dissatisfied.
Everyone else, meanwhile, would do well to read Derrida. Along with Barthes, Foucault and Lacan, who preceded him en route to void, Jacques Derrida was one of France’s signal intellectual figures to emerge from the 60’s and impact world-wide in the 70’s. Reading a virtual novel like The Post Card is as entertaing as it is intellectually challenging. But for me most impresive of all is “Plato’s Pharmacy,” the central section of Dissemination.
Discourse on Plato’s Dialogues was in and of itself no new thing. But only Derrida elected to do so via its juxtaposition with a brief, mysterious text by Mallarme. The result is a piece of critical literature I find myself returning to time and time again. Partly for its intellectual rigor, but mostly for its sheer fun. Like the fun of I Heart Huckabees, a comedy about philosophy that I’m sure Derrida would have loved. Indeed it resembles nothing so much as a Derrida remake of Frank Tashlin’s Who’s Minding the Store? — which doubtless explains why its made so many critics nervous.
Almost as nervous as the NYT obituary of Jacques Derrida that you’ve just read.
Excerpt: Ha ha!
Weblog: Bitches with Glitches
Tracked: October 9, 2004 09:01 AM