October 12, 2004
I am struck at how peevish some of the discussion of Derrida’s legacy has been, both among his supporters and critics.
Whether he was a “real” philosopher or not strikes me as wholly immaterial save for academics who account intellectual influence or legitimacy strictly by whether someone is in the correct department or uses the correct narrow disciplinary forms for citation and publication. He can hardly be blamed for all the various ills attributed, fairly or unfairly, to postmodernism, poststructuralism or even deconstruction, not the least the spread of a modality of analytic writing among American academics that tried to imitate translations of Derrida’s prose.
My first encounter with Derrida was as an undergraduate. I’d found Foucault’s writings very interesting and stimulating so I asked a professor I really admired to do a tutorial on modern critical theory with me. Some of what we read I liked a lot. One or two things I shirked on because they were too difficult, and was forced to reencounter them later. (Being and Time was one of them.) Derrida I just sort of shrugged at, and asked, “What’s the big deal?” One of the things that came out of the ensuing conversation was that you sort of had to be there at the right time and place for Derrida’s work to be intellectually transformative, that he was an intervention in the truest sense of the term. I think that’s about right. Just as many of Marx’s critics scarcely recognize the degree to which Marx produced much of the common social and historical frame of reference and vocabulary that the critics themselves use, so too do many of Derrida’s critics fail to recognize how much Derrida and his associated helped to normalize certain propositions about interpretation and communication that we do not specifically attribute any longer to them. Almost all of us take for granted now the permanent imperfection of representation and communicative action, the inevitability of a profound and important slippage between signifier and sign, reader and text, but this wasn’t always a given in humanistic writing.
Derrida’s greatest admirers are right to insist that we recall the importance of that intervention, which was meaningful to different people in different ways, and in its wake, unmemorable and unnoticed by those who lived in its aftermath because it had become common sense for us. Of course binaries were silly and arbitrary! Of course texts have no fixed or final meaning! In the humanities, all of us have inherited a particular armory of critical techniques and powerful gestures that are a commonplace. We all know the art of kicking the feet out from under any text or interpretation we encounter, of destabilizing casually affirmative interpretations about the meanings found in a text.
Perniciously, many of us also came into our scholarly practice (or other practices outside the academy) less and less capable of saying what we ourselves knew, less and less capable of making confident interpretations ourselves, more and more qualified in our own analysis the point that we tried to say everything and nothing all at once, more and more reduced to too-clever-by-half gnawing at the work of others, the infantile destabilization of all other claims and arguments.
The greatest problem I have with both Derrida and his most ardent intellectual followers is the absolutism of their favored move. To note the impossibility of perfected communication, the impossibility of ever knowing with certainty what is meant or said, the impossibilility of knowing the subjectivity of others, became for Derrida and some others the impossibility of any communication, any knowledge. A sleight-of-hand moved us from trying to discern the singular most correct interpretation of a text to believing that any given text held within it an inexhaustible infinity of possible meanings, none of which could be subjugated to another on the grounds that one interpretation was more right than another, more communicative than another, more authentic to itself and its readers.
In some ways, this is yet another way we can see how much of postmodernism is less “post” and more the fall of a religion from its faith, the bitterness and lingering of a frustrated modernism. Derrida was oddly empiricist, in his way. Frequently, he would enter an ongoing discussion about a text, a turn of speech, a political regime, a sociological construct not by polymorphously opening up meanings and possibilities but by insisting that the one meaning that should be completely and utterly denied to us is that meaning which we are most commonly accustomed to seeing. Counter-intuitively, Derridean deconstruction was not a permissive practice, but an inhibitory one: it’s favorite word was, “No!”: no, this saying does not mean what we think it means; no, this book does not mean what it is said to mean; no, this government does not act as it says it acts; no, there is never male and female alone, always there is much more. You may have any meanings save those you are familiar with, trust in, assume: those are denied to you, because they are untrue.
This back-door empiricism, this authoritative negation, was one component of the interior absolutism of Derrida’s critical method. The other was the cry of all or nothing at all, that if communication could not be perfected, then there was no communication, if texts could not have a correct meaning, they meant everything, anything, nothing in particular. This is the rear-guard modernism of Derrida (and much poststructuralist or postmodernist thought) and it reminds me of nothing so much as Einstein’s later career. Most non-scientists scarcely appreciate the degree to which Einstein, the modern embodiment of science, was in fact wildly, quixotically, bitterly and almost theologically wrong about the key tenets of his science for much of his life. What he rejected was a probabilistic universe (the source of his much-misused “God does not play dice” comment). So too, in an oddly related way, Derrida. If meaning cannot be guaranteed with finality, then there is no use to talking about it at all. If interpretation cannot be absolute, it cannot be done save as a negation of all positive acts of interpretation. The massively excluded middle: that texts are more likely to mean some things than others, that some interpretation is more right than other interpretation, that communication is subject to some but not infinite slippage, that other subjectivities are not perfectly knowable but neither are they perfectly mysterious: all this was not so much denied as evaded by Derrida. Confronted with a probabilistic understanding of communication, subjectivity, meaning, interpretation, even the most devoted Derridean will concede that of course this is true, and likely angrily deny that Derrida ever thought otherwise. The problem is that Derrida did not ever move into a mode of critical praxis in which is was possible, once again, to make affirmative statements about what is more and less likely to be true, to chart a course beyond the absolutist “No!” directed at anyone so foolish as to claim a finding about meaning and the proclamation of infinite slippages and endless irresolvable mutability in representation. To move from a critique of knowledge back to the practice of it. That work he left to the rest of us, and so left himself behind in the infinite regression to the moment of his own eruption into the space of humanistic practice.