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Derrida, Derrida, Etc.

The deconstruction of a philosophical flim-flam artist

By Mark Goldblatt

Zeitgeist Films, distributor of the documentary Derrida, currently in limited release in select cities across the country, poses the following rhetorical question on its promotional website: What if you could watch Socrates, on film, rehearsing his Socratic dialogues? The insinuation, of course, is that Jacques Derrida, the contemporary French thinker sometimes called the "father of deconstruction" deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the ancient Greek thinker sometimes called the "father of philosophy." This is true only insofar as a firecracker and a hydrogen bomb both go pop. Otherwise, the comparison is ludicrous.

Indeed, the critical point to be borne in mind with regard to Derrida is that he is not now, nor has he ever been, a philosopher in any recognizable sense of the word, nor even a trafficker in significant ideas; he is rather a intellectual con artist, a polysyllabic grifter who has duped roughly half the humanities professors in the United States--a species whose gullibility ranks them somewhere between nine-year old boys listening to spooky campfire stories and blissful puppies chasing after non-existent sticks--into believing that postmodernism has an underlying theoretical rationale. History will remember Derrida, and it surely will, not for what he himself has said but for what his revered status says about us.

Whether history will remember Derrida, the movie, is another question. I suspect it will, though not in the way the filmmakers intended. I can just about hear the peals of laughter, decades hence, from stoned art house audiences as Derrida is surrounded by fawning NYU graduate students telling him how much clearer his writing has become after listening to his double-talk in person . . . or when he insists "since I am a philosopher, I must be rigorous with what I say"--before launching into another free-associative tinseling of the question he's just been asked . . . or as directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman zoom in on the great man getting his hair trimmed or picking out a sports jacket, or buttering his morning bagel.

The high point of the film, judging from the comments of several notable reviewers, comes half way through and consists of Derrida's five minute meditation on the concept of love. After a token demurral and his customary song and dance about the difficulty of the topic--including the self-contradictory howler "I'm incapable of generalities"--Derrida hones in on the dilemma of whether love consists of our being drawn to the "singularity" of another person or to a set of specific qualities possessed by the person we love. In other words, do I love you for your essential you-ness or for the sum of characteristics I associate with you? He provides no answer, naturally. But, at the screening I attended, as Derrida wound down his discourse, an audible gasp rose from the sparse crowd in the theater.

This is the danger of dilettantism--even a mundane bit of business will strike the dilettante as a sudden revelation since he possesses only a cursory acquaintance with subject matter. Derrida, in this case, is merely reiterating the ancient Aristotelian distinction between substance (the underlying essence of a thing) and accidents (the perceptible qualities of a thing attached to, but separable from, its essence). Aristotle utilized the substance-accidents distinction to account for the reality of identity in a world in constant flux. You can step in the same river twice, according to the Aristotelian view; the accidents change, but the substance of the river endures. Thus, the question Derrida poses with regards to the concept of love amounts to asking whether we love a substantial expression of human nature (the "singularity" of a person) or merely a collection of pleasing accidents (his or her apparent qualities). Intriguing? Maybe. Original? Please. By comparison, Thomas Aquinas invoked the theory of substance and accidents in the doctrine of transubstantiation to explicate the Eucharistic sacrament: The accidents of the bread and wine--their textures, their smells, their tastes--remain, but the substances in which these inhere are miraculously translated into the actual body and blood of Jesus.

If Derrida is a fraud, and he most definitely is, how has he managed to hoodwink so many highly credentialed academics, especially those trained in literary criticism, art history, film studies, psychology, sociology, linguistics and (lately) legal theory? In this regard, it should be noted that his influence among professional philosophers has been minimal. When Derrida was awarded an honorary degree from Cambridge University in 1992, twenty of the world's most prominent philosophers--including W.V. Quine and Ruth Barcan Marcus--signed a letter of protest which is worth quoting at length:

M. Derrida describes himself as a philosopher, and his writings do indeed bear some marks of writings in that discipline. Their influence, however, has been to a striking degree almost entirely outside philosophy. . . . In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly those working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the world, M. Derrida's work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor. . . . M. Derrida seems to us to have come close to making a career out of what we regard as translating into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists. . . . Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule.

The fact that Derrida's influence is least felt in the very discipline he claims to practice testifies to the ascendancy of dilettantism in the humanities. Nevertheless, there are other, more cynical, reasons for his high-standing. To glimpse these, however, a bit of background on deconstruction is in order.

Deconstruction is a theoretical approach to texts that gained a brief cachet among leftist intellectuals in France in the late 1960s and soon thereafter, through the writings of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Paul de Man and especially Derrida, found a lasting niche in literature and social science departments on American campuses. Despite its French popularizers, deconstruction is actually the bastard child of American New Criticism of the 1930s and 40s--in particular, the principle that the meaning of a text is not controlled by the artist’s intention. (The belief that the author controls the meaning is called the Intentional Fallacy.) The New Critics held that a text, once created, should be divorced from what's known of its creator, and its meaning subsequently negotiated, as it were disembodied, by its critical audience. Yet the New Critics never doubted that a text was held together by a "voice," perhaps non-authorial but still a unified presence, or that the text possessed a set of coherent meanings, or that it would sustain certain meanings and contradict others.

The deconstructionist wrinkle on New Criticism was the denial that a coherent meaning could ever be had. On the contrary, every reading was a misreading since language is always self-contradictory, unbound by any unified voice; hence, all efforts to pin down a meaning are doomed from the start. From such premises flows the practice of deconstruction--which amounts to teasing out secondary and tertiary senses of individual lines, words, or even syllables to show how a text contradicts what it seems clearly to mean.

For example, if I assert that my first name is Mark, the deconstructionist would call into question that claim. He might point out that, on the day I was born, before I was ever "Mark," I was "Baby Goldblatt"--thus the claim that my first name is Mark, in a temporal sense, is false. He might also note that, in terms of social priority, "Goldblatt" is the name by which I'm known at the payroll department at my college, and the name by which my students address me. The deconstructionist might then mention that the word "Mark," if stripped of its nominative sense, connotes a sign by which ownership is claimed--i.e., to make one's mark. It is thus a territorial signifier, perhaps intended by me to carve out a political space in which I can conduct my relationships on a familiar basis; claiming it as my "first" name is thus inevitably a political act.

If this strikes you as "rigorous" thinking, then you too can be a humanities professor. Still, such foolishness has a decided upside in academia. When your goal is to deconstruct rather than read--that is, to hunt down internal contradictions rather than to reconstruct what a text means--then you can set aside the logic of observation and inference and take up word play to show how every previous critic has been wrong . . . or if not exactly wrong, since the very notion of being wrong no longer makes sense, then at least how every previous critic's own political agenda lurks behind what he perceived as the plain meaning of the text.

But why not just deal with the text explicitly?

There are three main reasons, each of them utilitarian:

First, and most obviously, deconstruction is less taxing than traditional close reading. The latter demands strict methodologies and background research--and even then it's tough to come up with an original angle on, say, Shakespeare's Hamlet. Critics have been going at that thing for over three centuries. But if I can sidestep Shakespeare and tap into Goldblatt's Hamlet--that is, the infinite universe of sub-textual contradictions ascribed, for the sake of convenience, to Shakespeare but which I alone perceive--then I'm practically home free. "To be or not to be" . . . I mean, what couldn't that mean? Now all I've got to do is whip up a glaze of jargon, so that what I'm saying sounds "rigorous" rather than just plain silly, and start churning out those scholarly monographs.

Second, deconstruction means never having to say you're sorry. In 1988, five years after his death, the deconstructionist critic Paul de Man’s early writings surfaced--including an essay he'd penned in 1940, while living in Belgium, for the pro-Nazi newspaper Le Soir. In it, de Man wrote: "One can thus see that a solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences." Derrida rushed to his deceased friend's defense, deconstructing de Man’s essay to show how he wasn't really saying anything bad about the Jews.

Third, and most importantly, deconstruction carries a distinct political advantage for the intellectual left. When words no longer retain their common sense meanings, then any statement of truth becomes suspect. (Is Mark my first name?) What could be handier, if you can't make a reasonable case for what you believe, than a theory which seems to undermine reason itself and thereby relativizes all knowledge? Thus, for example, if you're a multiculturalist, you can argue--against historical evidence--that Greek philosophy is derived from sub-Saharan Africa; or if you're a feminist, you can argue--against biological evidence--that gender is entirely socially constructed; or if your a Marxist, you can argue--against experiential evidence--that socialism is compatible with individual rights.

Et cetera.

As a documentary, Derrida tells us little worth knowing about a silly Frenchman named Jacques Derrida. The fact that such a film exists, however, tells us much worth knowing about ourselves.