Michael Rosen on Derrida

From Leiter’s blog, Michael Rosen (who wrote the excellent On Voluntary Servitude, a book I would write about if it weren’t so dense that it’d require a huge amount of time to treat it) talks about academic strategies:

Ephraim Kishon has a story called “Jewish Poker”. Jewish poker is played without cards so all you can do is bluff – and you have to bluff high. I think that this is the secret of Derridean post-modernism as currently practised in U.S. humanities departments: in the end, it’s all competitive hyperbole – who can be more radical?

Someone starts off with a huge unsupported generalization. For example, they write a book saying that the whole of Western thought is under the hegemony (good word) of (say) “logocentrism”, that its genealogy has to be exposed and deconstructed to reveal the Other that it “covers over and disavows”.

That’s a high bid, but you can top that. Why not write a review saying that this is to give “the Other” a “hegemonic status”, that this too needs to be deconstructed and given a genealogy? Say that the re-valuation of values hasn’t been radical enough, that “the Nietzschean trans-valuation is far from being complete: in its second stage, at the threshold of which we find ourselves today, it will necessitate a de-hierarchization of the already inverted values, so that alterity, too, would lose its newly acquired transcendental status, just as sameness and identity did in twentieth-century thought.”

Of course, tone and style matter. Although you’ve left banalities like “sameness and identity” (and hence, presumably, essence, cause and logical inference) far behind, don’t hesitate to use terms like “necessitate” for the ideas you are advocating, or (although you don’t believe in such fetishes as truth in interpretation) to describe others’ interpretations as “deeply flawed”. To think that once you’ve toppled the idols of objectivity you can’t write as if they were still standing is a sign of hopeless logocentrism.

It’s good too to write as if your native language isn’t English, or that, at least, your English has been saturated by what you’ve absorbed in your many years on the *rive gauche*. A nice Derridean-Althusserian touch here (see Judith Butler, *passim*) is the spurious use of the term “precisely” when you make an especially vague assertion (“The promise of deconstruction lies, precisely, in its ability to inspire this post-metaphysical thrust ‘beyond the same and the other.’”) Introducing your sentences with pompous phrases like “Let us note that …” may not add anything of substance to them but it does convey the impression that you are addressing your audience from a position of authority (a podium at the École Normale?). Above all, the secret is to convince people that you are further up the mountain than everyone else and looking down on them. Writing in this condescending way won’t make you popular, no doubt, but what the hell – oderint dum metuant!

Where will it all end? Presumably, this too can be out-bid – perhaps someone else will come along and offer a genealogy of deconstruction or a deconstruction of genealogy. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how many iterations the transvaluation of valuations can go through. Yet there must – surely – come a point where the whole thing vanishes up its own …

But what to do until that happy day? Certainly, it is heart-breaking for those of us who would like Continental philosophy to be taken more seriously, but how do you argue with people for whom “reason” and “argument” (like “sameness” and “identity”) are simply terms in a “hegemonic discourse” they have left behind? And, if they can shrug off the Sokal hoax and take Alain Badiou seriously, they are obviously past being laughed back into sanity by a sense of the absurd. So I think that all the rest of us can do is to keep out of their way and leave them to patronize one another to their hearts’ content.

Michael Rosen

Rosen and Leiter edited the Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, and seem to be part of a vague movement afoot among Anglo philosophers to write about Continental theorists in comparatively clear and methodical ways. I have a fair bit of sympathy with this movement. One of the ongoing debates, though, is which of the theorists are irredeemable. Here’s how the categories seem to be shaking out, from my perspective. (I could be wrong about any of these; this is just a general impression and not reflective of the views of any single person.)

Solid: Herder, Hegel, Marx, Peirce, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Husserl, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Habermas

Sketchy: Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Kuhn, Deleuze

Fraudulent: Derrida, Levinas, Althusser, Badiou, Zizek

Given this arrangement, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more attention paid to Vico, Cassirer, Ricoeur, and Apel, but perhaps in time, just as Herder seems just now to be having a renaissance.

I’ll have my own say on Derrida and phenomenology shortly….

17 thoughts on “Michael Rosen on Derrida

  1. I’ll have my own say on Derrida and phenomenology shortly….

    Is someone looking to submit a paper for a class they audited?

  2. The last line seems to have been truncated…

    I think I’m with Ray on this one — you have to be a really skilled comedian to do caricature well, and the relevant skills probably derive from a sense of charity. On the other hand, I’ve depended for years on being able to isolate myself from whatever kind of theoretical writing he’s talking about, so maybe I’m just too remote from it to get the joke.

    A propos of Sartre: purely out of curiosity, did you ever read Judt’s Past Imperfect, in whole or in part? I read the whole thing at an impressionable age and I suppose it’s always colored my thinking about Sartre in particular. (Follow the link– it’s funny!)

  3. Tough crowd! How about this from Raymond Tallis?

    “Derrida, Simon Critchley says, “rightly argues that Levinas’s Totality and Infinity can be read as ‘an immense treatise on hospitality’, where ethics is defined as a welcome to the other, as an unconditional hospitality”.

    “This is the Derridean style in a nutshell: the transition from the banal to the global-counter-intuitive, secured by a comma that looks almost as if the only job it has to do is to separate two rather similar assertions, when actually it has to propel an argument from Patience Strong to outer space. In the world of leger de Man, commas are discursive rocket fuel.”

    (Ironically, Critchley is misreading Derrida here. What are you gonna do?)

    chakira: The paper would not be on Derrida.

    nnyhav: I know, I know. I like to boost Peirce when I can. But he does have enough idealist and social theory affinities with continental thought to merit inclusion.

    phoenixcomplex: I don’t think I knew who Tony Judt was when I was at an impressionable age. I came to Sartre through the standard existentialist teenage period: Nausea, The Wall, The Words.

    jake: Probably not, since it does assume some familiarity. But there’s never a good way into these things. Copleston’s history is the only acceptable one I know of, and inevitably it’s got problems too.

  4. I guess “The Wall” was my first encounter too — Judt was four years later. My impressionable period lasted about a decade; now nothing impresses me, although the Tallis quote is indeed funnier than Rosen.

    Where are Schopenhauer & Kierkegaard?

  5. For what it’s worth, Martin Hagglund’s Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life is a clear, lucid, and sophisticated account of Derrida’s thought. It translates Derrida’s often tortured prose into clear, readily-digestible statements, and it contextualizes the philosophical stakes of Derrida’s work by showing how it responds to the philosophies of Kant and Husserl.

    Basically, it does for Derrida what Leiter does for Nietzsche and Rosen does for Hegel (although I doubt Leiter or Rosen would see it that way).

    Also, there aren’t puns and it basically eviscerates Critchley’s work — so it has that going for it, too.

  6. Kuhn? Surely not Thomas Kuhn (neither continental nor in need of rehabilitation). But who? & my sense is that Foucault and Heidegger are only “sketchy” in that not everyone agrees that they’re solid—rather than there being general agreement that they’re sketchy. (I would have put them solidly in the solid category.)

    It’s good to see that people are still trotting out the Sokal hoax in this context as if it were at all relevant.

    I find this movement kind of strange: many people involved in it (Leiter, to take a prominent example!) talk about themselves as continental philosophers, though this is true only in the way that people who study Plato are ancient philosophers: they take continental philosophers as their objects of study.

  7. Claim big, yes, and make your proofs not quite comprehensible – use new words, weird words, foreign words, old words in new and unexplained ways, unreadably long sentences, scatter the proofs over a number of chapters or books, make sure there are in fact no individual proofs but just what-ifs, hypothetical connections, explorations even, while implying in anticipation and hindsight that proofs of something important are happening nearby, present them as responses to several sufficiently disparate and hard-to-interpret figures such that no one claims to understand all of them. Never let it be quite clear what you’re saying overall, let even the big claim – which you must nevertheless be sure people do infer – be qualified enough for deniability later. Find allies doing the same thing and suggest you’re building on one another’s work. Imply these strange new methods are the only recourse given the requirements of the startlingly new reality revealed by the big claim. The others will understand some day (the best right away, be sure that’s understood, as you’ll get nowhere without disciples).

    And always point out how hackneyed and irrelevant critiques are. Actually, point out nothing else about them: that could be dangerous.

  8. phoenix: S + K seem to be low profile. Concluding Scientific Postscript is probably due for a reevaluation, no?

    Ben: True, true. I included Kuhn because it seems that a lot of analytic types really do loathe him, despite him being fairly well-credentialed. I suppose lumping him in with Deleuze makes the category awfully wide. (And yes, sketchy refers to a lack of consensus, not a consensus of sketchiness.) There’s definitely a territorial component to what’s going on, but I don’t have much idea of the insides of it.

    proximoception: You’re on to me.

  9. I can’t agree about Levinas. I think it might be better to put him in the sketchy category, with “sketchy” not necessarily being a term of semi-disparagement. Deleuze wrote very well in favor of minor literature, and I think that there’s a way that Levinas meant to write minor philosophy. Derrida meant to as well, but failed. The grandiosity of the claims doesn’t mean that the aspiration isn’t both minor and to the minor. Because the claims are about possibilities of human experience, things that are good to think with, less than they are about truth. Derrida unfortunately turned out not to have that long a shelf-life.

    Tallis is witty but prefers polemic to truth, which is too bad. I always like reading him, but his criticism never seems to hit home.

    Back to Levinas: I’d say his complaint about Heidegger is that Heidegger aspired to being major, to replacing Descartes and Kant. And Levinas thought that this was just a wrong conception of human life. Maybe a way to put it is to say that responsibility to the other is incompatible with responsibility to Philosophy as Heidegger understands it: a way of entering into an authentic relation to one’s own death. Levinas is dead set against Heidegger’s solipsism (whatever he claims about it), and against an attitude towards philosophy that risks leading to solipsism. But he wants the intensity, and I think the combination is a principled commitment to being minor.

  10. Did Derrida have a home to hit? He played the ‘that is not what I meant at all’ card into the ground. Tallis attacks a strawman, fine, but non-Inner Circle Derrideans support a very similar strawman – one set up by Derrida himself, asymptotically. He let others, for and against, treat his project as major.

    What you say about Levinas may be fair (though gleaning a philosopher’s message despite or against their own words sounds a bit like coming up with your own philosophy under their influence), but how you sat it reminds me of one of the comments to the later Derrida post. Stages of the decline and fall of a paradigm, through imaginary words of its vocal adherents:

    A. “They’re right and everyone knows that.”

    B. “They are right, perhaps not about everything, but who ever is.”

    C. “Whatever the justice of your attacks, many of us find that these figures provide indispensable intellectual tools and insights.”

    D. “They didn’t entirely understand what they were actually onto, which is a shame, yes, but I think you’ll find they deserve serious scrutiny for what they suggest rather than say.”

    E. “They were wrong but there’s something special about their smile.”

    Which there usually is.

  11. No: I think Levinas knew what he was doing. I’m not playing that card. I think Levinas was absolutely clear about himself.

    Hitting home in the sense that nothing Tallis says works as an argument against anyone at all intrigued by Derrida. It’s not that his arguments are wrong; it’s that he doesn’t try at all to see what anyone might have learned from Derrida (I learned a lot) or to engage with that. I’d feel the same way if he were attacking Leo Strauss, whom I loathe. There’s no attempt at beginning an intellectual engagement. Which is fine, unless you’re writing a lot about the person. Blindness and insight are a good pairing. It’s fine to call Derrida blind. But don’t keep circling back to that (as Tallis does) without acknowledging that there might be some people at least who find some real insight there, see things they hadn’t seen before, understand the world a little better. I certainly did. Tallis has never done that for me.

    Not a defense of Derrida. I put him in the fraudulent camp. But Tallis matches Derrida only in ad hominem scorn.

  12. Glad to hear that about Levinas.

    What little Tallis I’ve read seemed dead on to me, except the Saussure stuff which I didn’t know enough to follow. Scornful, yes, but that too seemed appropriate. First experiences matter, here: for me this wasn’t ‘did you hear the exciting news from France?’ but gradual exposure to a group of people who thought they’d (un)learned everything and who did a lot of damage, including to my family.

    But it’s been unexpectedly proved I can be literally blinded by rage on this topic. So I’ll wear my listening hat: in what ways do you understand the world a little better after reading Derrida?

  13. @proximoception What I learned from Derrida is to see what anxiety a writer might be attempting to overcome or repress or deny. And to see that thinking in those terms might deepen one’s sense of what the writer is doing and why.

    I also learned a technical vocabulary that was partially taken from Heidegger, partially from Plato. I couldn’t have read the Parmenides, for example, without being introduced to those ideas by Derrida. A ladder you can then throw away.

    Yes, I think that there’s little as unpleasant as Derridean self-righteousness among the acolytes of the acolytes. I particularly remember being struck by the vast world-weariness of a person in her mid-twenties, who had to acknowledge that it was inevitable that the culture was going to keep making the same mistakes about force and presence that Derrida prophesied it would. And the disciples’ sense that they alone have broken a net (as Blake said of Swedenborg) is positively harmful. I hold Derrida responsible for this partly because of his personal unpleasantness, his unwillingness to consider that there might be another way of thinking, or that other thought came out of real passion, even when he was reading with that constantly in mind. But as Gatsby says that’s just personal. I think the first time you really read Derrida (and don’t read what people claim he’s saying) there’s potentially something really exciting there.

    Maybe the way to say this is to say that he’s a really good introduction to philosophical anxiety, to the question why philosophy can feel so important. His own philosophy is second rate at best, but his sense of the importance of philosophy, along with his ability to communicate that sense, is bracing.

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