Rene — OpEd + More Letters to the New York Times

Topic(s): Derrida | Comments Off on Rene — OpEd + More Letters to the New York Times

A. What Derrida Really Meant
A. What Derrida Really Meant
October 14, 2004
What Derrida Really Meant
Along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, who died last week in Paris at the age of 74, will be remembered as one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century. No thinker in the last 100 years had a greater impact than he did on people in more fields and different disciplines. Philosophers, theologians, literary and art critics, psychologists, historians, writers, artists, legal scholars and even architects have found in his writings resources for insights that have led to an extraordinary revival of the arts and humanities during the past four decades. And no thinker has been more deeply misunderstood.
To people addicted to sound bites and overnight polls, Mr. Derrida’s works seem hopelessly obscure. It is undeniable that they cannot be easily summarized or reduced to one-liners. The obscurity of his writing, however, does not conceal a code that can be cracked, but reflects the density and complexity characteristic of all great works of philosophy, literature and art. Like good French wine, his works age well. The more one lingers with them, the more they reveal about our world and ourselves.
What makes Mr. Derrida’s work so significant is the way he brought insights of major philosophers, writers, artists and theologians to bear on problems of urgent contemporary interest. Most of his infamously demanding texts consist of careful interpretations of canonical writers in the Western philosophical, literary and artistic traditions – from Plato to Joyce. By reading familiar works against the grain, he disclosed concealed meanings that created new possibilities for imaginative expression.
Mr. Derrida’s name is most closely associated with the often cited but rarely understood term “deconstruction.” Initially formulated to define a strategy for interpreting sophisticated written and visual works, deconstruction has entered everyday language. When responsibly understood, the implications of deconstruction are quite different from the misleading clichés often used to describe a process of dismantling or taking things apart. The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure – be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious – that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.
These exclusive structures can become repressive – and that repression comes with consequences. In a manner reminiscent of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that what is repressed does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems. As an Algerian Jew writing in France during the postwar years in the wake of totalitarianism on the right (fascism) as well as the left (Stalinism), Mr. Derrida understood all too well the danger of beliefs and ideologies that divide the world into diametrical opposites: right or left, red or blue, good or evil, for us or against us. He showed how these repressive structures, which grew directly out of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, threatened to return with devastating consequences. By struggling to find ways to overcome patterns that exclude the differences that make life worth living, he developed a vision that is consistently ethical.
And yet, supporters on the left and critics on the right have misunderstood this vision. Many of Mr. Derrida’s most influential followers appropriated his analyses of marginal writers, works and cultures as well as his emphasis on the importance of preserving differences and respecting others to forge an identity politics that divides the world between the very oppositions that it was Mr. Derrida’s mission to undo: black and white, men and women, gay and straight. Betraying Mr. Derrida’s insights by creating a culture of political correctness, his self-styled supporters fueled the culture wars that have been raging for more than two decades and continue to frame political debate.
To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious nihilist who threatened the very foundation of Western society and culture. By insisting that truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty, his detractors argue, he undercut the very possibility of moral judgment. To follow Mr. Derrida, they maintain, is to start down the slippery slope of skepticism and relativism that inevitably leaves us powerless to act responsibly.
This is an important criticism that requires a careful response. Like Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Mr. Derrida does argue that transparent truth and absolute values elude our grasp. This does not mean, however, that we must forsake the cognitive categories and moral principles without which we cannot live: equality and justice, generosity and friendship. Rather, it is necessary to recognize the unavoidable limitations and inherent contradictions in the ideas and norms that guide our actions, and do so in a way that keeps them open to constant questioning and continual revision. There can be no ethical action without critical reflection.
During the last decade of his life, Mr. Derrida became preoccupied with religion and it is in this area that his contribution might well be most significant for our time. He understood that religion is impossible without uncertainty. Whether conceived of as Yahweh, as the father of Jesus Christ, or as Allah, God can never be fully known or adequately represented by imperfect human beings.
And yet, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped by people who claim to know, for certain, that God is on their side. Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger.
As the process of globalization draws us ever closer in networks of communication and exchange, there is an understandable longing for simplicity, clarity and certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure, for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism – in this country and around the world. True believers of every stripe – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – cling to beliefs that, Mr. Derrida warns, threaten to tear apart our world.
Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief – one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don’t know so that we can keep the future open.
In the two decades I knew Mr. Derrida, we had many meetings and exchanges. In conversation, he listened carefully and responded helpfully to questions whether posed by undergraduates or colleagues. As a teacher, he gave freely of his time to several generations of students.
But small things are the measure of the man. In 1986, my family and I were in Paris and Mr. Derrida invited us to dinner at his house in the suburbs 20 miles away. He insisted on picking us up at our hotel, and when we arrived at his home he presented our children with carnival masks. At 2 a.m., he drove us back to the city. In later years, when my son and daughter were writing college papers on his work, he sent them letters and postcards of encouragement as well as signed copies of several of his books. Jacques Derrida wrote eloquently about the gift of friendship but in these quiet gestures – gestures that served to forge connections among individuals across their differences – we see deconstruction in action.
Mark C. Taylor, a professor of the humanities at Williams College and a visiting professor of architecture and religion at Columbia, is the author, most recently, of “Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption.”
Dear Editor:
The New York Times has demeaned itself by publishing such a scurrilous article as the obituary of one of the greatest philosophers of our time. Jacques Derrida was indeed controversial. His concern was not the exposure of error but an investigation into how we produce truth, precisely because his work was committed to justice and democracy. At a time when the United States has earned
international condemnation because of its arrogance, it was unworthy of the reputation of your newspaper to publish such a piece of uninformed xenophobia, especially when its subject is unable to respond.
Sincerely yours,
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities
Director, Center for Comparative Literature and Society
Columbia University
To the Editor:
I’m sure I speak for thousands of readers when I say how surprised and
distressed I was to read Jonathan Kandell’s ungracious and ill-informed
obituary of Jacques Derrida. When a major intellectual dies, it is
surely not customary for the Times to assign his obituary to a
small-minded partisan who will devote himself to denigration rather than
explanation. Mr. Kandell views Derrida’s work with annoyed
incomprehension and quotes many journalists and a few academics who
share his attitude, but he did not bother to interview a single
philosopher or theorist who could speak in an informed way about
Derrida’s importance. In reviewing Derrida’s life as they did, Mr.
Kandell and the Times have gone to great lengths to put the bitch back in
Lars Engle
Professor of English
University of Tulsa
Tulsa, OK
October 10, 2004
To the Editor
Topping the usually Philistine relationship of the Times to just about everything academic, and its habit of entrusting the composition of obituaries to overt opponents of the deceased supposed to be memorialized, the article by a Jonathan Kandell on Jacques Derrida, who died this past Friday, reaches a peak of populist anti-intellectualism–not to speak of the countless distortions it contains–that I thought only possible in a Murdoch publication.
Rather than trying to explain Derrida’s philosophical enterprise, and give at least some ideas about his trajectory–from phenomenology to structuralism to, yes, their “deconstruction”–Mr. Kandell sets the tone right away, already dismissing Derrida as an “Abstruse Theorist” in the title of his hatchet job. After a caricatural description of deconstruction as “the method of inquiry that asserted that all writing was full of confusion and contradiction,” and a not-so-subtle underscoring that Derrida was French (and thus anti-American, if suppose: one wonders if Mr. Kandell works for the Bush administration), Mr. Kandell spouts one derogatory term after the other. Structuralism is a “slippery philosophy,” Derrida’s explanations are “murky,” his books “off-putting to the uninitiated,” and so on.
The lowest point of the article involves Derrida’s long contribution to a symposium organized by Paul de Man’s many admirers, following the discovery, shortly after his death, that as a young man, between the age of 20 and 23, from 1940 to 1943, de Man had published literary columns in several Belgium journals controlled by the German occupiers. After telling us that de Man “contributed numerous pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic articles” (a flat lie, as anyone who has done his or her home work knows–the homework of reading de Man’s complete war-time essays,­ anthologized and republished by the organizers of the symposium I just mentioned), here is what Mr. Kandell has to say: “In defending his dead colleague, Mr. Derrida, a Jew, was understood by some people to be condoning Mr. De Man’s anti-Semitism.” “Was understood by some people”: sounds like a “news” broadcast on Fox TV. But Mr. Kandell does not stop there, he even quotes one of his fellow journalists arguing that “borrowing Derrida’s logic one could deconstruct Mein Kampf to reveal that [Adolf Hitler] was in conflict with anti-semitism.”
The obituary is full of filth, and I do not have the energy to rebut it point by point. Derrida would have: he always hoped against hope that stupidity could be countered by patient analysis, that, in the end, philosophers would win against the boeotians–even if it meant that philosophers, from Socrates on, often had to die during this age-long battle.
One thing is certain, the Times failed to its mission of informing its readers and instead of recapitulating Derrida’s formidable accomplishment, it confirms this opinion of a “journalism professor” quoted by Mr. Kandell according to which “many otherwise unmalicious people have in fact been guilty of wishing for deconstruction’s demise–if only to relieve themselves of the burden of trying to understand it.” The only thing is: Mr. Kandell is anything but unmalicious.
Yve-Alain Bois
Joseph Pulitzer Jr., Professor of Modern Art
Chair, Department of History of Art and Architecture
Harvard University
The Editor, The New York Times
I am dismayed by the crude, even slanderous, tone of the obituary of Jacques Derrida written by Jonathan Kandell for the New York Times. Instead of a celebration of this great thinker, whose interventions during the past forty years have been an inspiration and challenge to serious readers, the Times published a slur. One cannot ignore it, though this is not the time for a proper retort, and indeedKandell’s gossipy essay does not provide the occasion for one.
What is especially disappointing about such a piece is the way that it exemplifies repressive and trivializing tendencies in present-day political and pedagogic discussions. I suspect that the animosity that Derrida evokes in many circles ­ and that Kandell parrots so guilelessly ­ has little to do with the “turgid and baffling” nature of Derrida’s style but rather with the challenge that he mounted against routinized forms of philosophical and literary discourse.
Instead of circling around the meaning of “deconstruction”, this overblown and now useless term that Derrida himself never liked, let us rather learn from Derrida’s example. His exacting and scrupulous attention to the way language is used brings with it ethical and political responsibilities. How this happens is complicated and cannot be caught in a label or slogan. But those who have read Derrida over the years, including many like myself who were fortunate enough to be his colleague and frequent auditor, know that the difference he made was incalculable.
He will be missed.
Alexander Gelley
Professor of Comparative Literature
Interim Director, Program in Comparative Literature,
The University of California, Irvine
October 11, 2004
To the editor:
I can not believe that, in an obituary following the death of one of the most original and influential thinkers of our generation, someone whom so many truly diverse individuals are proud to have had as their contemporary, the New York Times dares to quote that outrageous, ridiculous and totally unwarranted sentence from a journalist attributing to Derrida a hypothetical deconstructive reading of Mein Kampf that would transform Hitler into an opponent of anti-Semitism. Absurdity here is competing with dishonesty, since your obituarian cowardly hides behind a quotation from The Guardian in order not to be held personnally responsible for his slanderous insinuation. It is a sad reminder of the way, not long ago, The New York Times so complacently lent itself to spreading unchecked rumors about aluminum tubes and arms of mass destruction.
Denis Hollier
New York University
October 11, 2004
To The Editor:
It is unfortunate, to say the least, that Jonathan Kandell’s obituary for Jacques Derrida makes so little effort to do justice to an admittedly difficult philosopher and settles instead for merely recycling a farrago of misconceptions, some well-intentioned and others malicious, that have dogged Derrida’s American reception from the beginning. I don’t see any point in trying to undo all that now, but there is perhaps something to be said for trying to redress the balance, however slightly,
The philosopher who Kendall cites as writing “needless to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible” is, on the face of it, interested in experience and its relation to its limits. More particularly, Derrida took it that the limits of experience did not simply lie outside experience but in some way belonged to its very substance. His general grounds for this view were a body of propositions, both widely shared and distinctly controversial in twentieth century philosophy, about the co-exensiveness of language and world: the fact of the world, he argued, is always also the fact of language, and of language not simply as a system of meanings but as an order of signs possessed of their own concrete materiality and contingency. He further claimed that the major traditions of Western thought had repeatedly attempted to relegate these more fractious aspects of language to its outside, to the mere conventionality of writing over and against the presumably fuller and more immediate presence of meaning in speech. Given these presuppositions, Derrida found himself both with a philosophic problem of a relatively familiar kind about the structure of experience and, as an essential part of that problem, a special problem about philosophy’s capacity to account for or acknowledge its own writing. It’s this nesting of problems that drives Derrida’s writing in both its difficulty and its playfulness and experimentation. One may, of course, think that in choosing to follow this track Derrida has gotten all sorts of things wrong, but it should be clear enough that it is a particular philosophic path and is after something other than the assertion of confusion and contradiction, murkiness and slipperiness, to which Kandell so casually reduces it.
I haven’t, of course, tried to say why any of this should matter to anybody who doesn’t already take some kind of interest in these questions. But I can’t really answer that kind of question about Descartes or Kant or Wittgenstein either; philosophy, like math or physics, makes its difficulties worthwhile for those who find themselves in need of it. There are nonetheless some things one can say Derrida has done: he has, for example, perhaps succeeded in giving us a distinction between “a reading” and “an interpretation” that will continue to be productive; it would be another job entirely to show how this ultimately yields a political imagination that has pretty much nothing to do with “dead white males” and everything to do with what shapes of solidarity and freedom finite beings might hope for. To do that job, we’d having to be willing to do some reading, and not just of Derrida.
Stephen Melville,
Professor, History of Art,
The Ohio State University
The writer is the author of Philosophy beside Itself: On Deconstruction and Modernism (University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
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To the Editor:
One wonders what has become of your standards of journalism, hiring a free-lance writer of dubious reputation to write an obituary of Jacques Derrida, one of the renowned philosophers of our time. Not only has Jonathan Kandell’s honesty as a reporter been questioned, his own book on Mexico City has been reviewed as “one-sided and ill-informed,” and his obituary (also in your pages) of Lawrence
Tisch deemed “long and foul.” A slash and burn approach might be appropriate for Carmine de Sapio (whose obituary he also wrote), but not for Jacques Derrida. Even if you had chosen a critic of Derrida’s to write the review, he should have been better informed. Kandell is embarrassingly illiterate in the history of philosophy.
His obituary is also terribly one sided. I thought the Times was committed to balance. Where are the appreciative quotes from American philosophers and literary critics? From those (and there are many) who have used his work to great effect and taught whole generations of students how to read differently? This article cites only debunkers; it is full of innuendo and nasty asides. Readers of the Times deserve better than an anti-intellectual rant and Jacques Derrida deserves a better last word than a biased and inaccurate account of his life and work.
Joan W. Scott
At a time when one of our political parties celebrates the virtues of black and white thinking and derides anything even slightly more complex, it was troubling to read your obituary of the philosopher Jacques Derrida. Instead of the kind of obituary of a major thinker one expects from your paper–a knowledgeable and objective consideration of the person’s work–this read more like the all too familiar celebration of ignorance. Derrida’s writing has helped several generations of people to imagine, not an abstruse moral relativism, but ultimately a more ethical way of thinking. It is worrisome that you do not seem to know that and were willing to settle for the most cliched, uninformed views of this important philosopher’s contributions.
Elizabeth Weed