Waggish

Derrida on Politics

The irreplaceable wood s lot links to one of Derrida’s last speeches. I’m no expert in Derrida or in deconstruction in general, which is why I find their speeches to laymen so informative. This one has me puzzled, though. It reads like a bastardization of Derrida’s own ideas. Aren’t deconstructionists always riled by the application of their technique of breaking down dichotomies into simple “not black, not white, but gray!” statements?

Yet that is what Derrida seems to do here:

This Europe, as a proud descendant of the Enlightenment past and a harbinger of the new Enlightenment to come, would show the world what it means to base politics on something more sophisticated than simplistic binary oppositions. In this Europe it would be possible to criticise Israeli policy, especially that pursued by Ariel Sharon and backed by George Bush, without being accused of anti-semitism. In this Europe, supporting the Palestinians in their legitimate struggle for rights, land and a state would not mean supporting suicide bombing or agreeing with the anti-semitic propaganda that is rehabilitating (with sad success) the outrageous lie that is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. [you get the idea]

Which is all fine and well, but I simply don’t see how a compromise solution involves a breakdown of dichotomies; we aren’t talking Rorty-style ironic pragmatism here, as much as Rorty would like to have you believe that his version derives from deconstruction. (The deconstructionists are not fond of Rorty.) It instead involves promulgation of a very specific ideal derived from the better parts of the Enlightenment: human rights, liberal democracy, tolerance. There is no mention of the parts of the Enlightenment that have come in for such criticism by much of recent deconstruction philosophy: scientific hegemony, white man’s burden colonialism, prejudicially normative ethics, the search for a single ultimate truth and pretenses towards such, etc.

Maybe he didn’t have space. But the piece is filled with other binary oppositions: globalization/anti-globalization, anti-Americanism/pro-Americanism, reform/reactionary. I have no problem with many of these, but the absence of Derrida’s own theory from the piece, except for a simple token dropping of “binary oppositions”, makes me wonder if Derrida had migrated toward a Chomsky-like position of separating research and politics, and had realized on some level that his academic positions, in short public speeches, could undercut the force of his beliefs. Is his rapprochement with the Enlightenment real, or a convenient reference to a belief that can be used to bring out the best in Europeans?

To Rorty’s credit, he always has worked very hard to keep the theory in his politics, and explain why he thinks linguistic deconstruction can be used as a tool in a liberal revival. I don’t think he succeeds, but I find his attempt to bring such theory to the masses in the service of social good somewhat noble.

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