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Post #386 • October 13, 2004, 10:41 AM • 41 Comments

Since Derrida's passing, I've been poking around on the web for information about him. Let me begin by saying that pancreatic cancer kills with a great deal of pain. My condolences go to his family and I pray for the relief of his burdens.

The value of any theory lies in the results. Theories resemble hammers in this respect: are you pounding nails, or your thumb? Really, nothing else matters. If Deconstructionism and its offspring inspire you to make great art, deconstruct away with my blessing. If modernism gets in your way, drop it. Art, like the rest of life, operates outside of the realm of theory and you may snatch it with whatever tongs you can weild.

I've been poking around because I've been wondering if I ought to educate myself on his work, in light of his great influence. I've decided that the effort will not compensate my time with any useful or meaningful increase in my understanding. Roger Kimball provides a quote from his writings:

Someone tells [Derrida], "I am interested in the idiom in painting." "What," Derrida asks, "does he mean?"
Does he mean that he is interested in the idiom "in painting," in the idiom itself, for its own sake, "in painting" (an expression that is in itself strongly idiomatic; but what is an idiom?)?

That he is interested in the idiomatic expression itself, in the words "in painting"? Interested in words in painting or in the words "in painting"? Or in the words "'in painting'"?

One may find it useful to kick language until it bleeds, but the exercise doesn't interest me. If I want to put myself in front of recombined language for the sake of a new experience, I'd rather read William Carlos Williams, who can do it with greater artfulness (and who has written brilliantly about paintings in his poems).

Derrida's language has influenced his followers for the worse, as one can tell from the website of the movie Derrida. They have adopted his pattern of repeating phrases to the point that the reader can hardly tell what writer means by them. A few odd punctuations, some choice italicizing, and a bit of French highten the effect. Stephen Barker:

Second hypothesis: a drawing of the blind is a drawing of the blind.

This proposition in more angular, less accessible, but fundamental to Derrida’s notion of drawing and equally appropriate to Derridathemovie. In drawing the blind, the artist/portraitist draws (the) blind; to draw is to interrogate blindness and drawing. In Mémoires, Derrida is concerned with the conversation between the visuality of the visual image, on the one hand, and the matrix of its theoretical parergon or frame, on the other. To engage as a participant in (a) drawing, seeing or doing it, Derrida asserts, as in a portrait or mémoire of Jacques Derrida in a film, is to address “the origin of drawing” —which is always blind, producing itself without reflection. A writer, poet, or film-maker re-engages the origin of the medium in exploring it and bringing it to light, blindly/originally, just as the philosopher may fall into a well, blindly, while contemplating a “star”...

Indeed, this consists entirely of effect. (I also found this kind of language pretty easy to spoof once I got the hang of it.) As a side effect, pure effect in writing may produce disasters of logic. The Guardian (thank you, David Sucher) got a quote from Amy Ziering Kofman, director of Derrida, asking to describe Derrida's work:

Derrida has been mischaracterised - he's not nihilistic or relativistic. He doesn't say, "Everything is equal and you can do what you want." Because there is no God or higher power, you have to take responsibility yourself. There is no absolute truth, so you have to agree a course of action. His thinking is based on a strict code of ethics.

That sounds laudable, but the statement "there is no absolute truth" falls handily into the category of relativism. This brings us to the ethics bit. From his obituary in the New York Times:

Mr. Derrida's influence was especially strong in the Yale University literature department, where one of his close friends, a Belgian-born professor, Paul de Man, emerged as a leading champion of deconstruction in literary analysis. Mr. de Man had claimed to be a refugee from war-torn Europe, and even left the impression among colleagues that he had joined the Belgian resistance.

But in 1987, four years after Mr. de Man's death, research revealed that he had written over 170 articles in the early 1940's for Le Soir, a Nazi newspaper in Belgium. Some of these articles were openly anti-Semitic, including one that echoed Nazi calls for "a final solution" and seemed to defend the notion of concentration camps.

"A solution to the Jewish problem that aimed at the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would entail no deplorable consequences for the literary life of the West," wrote Mr. de Man.

The revelations became a major scandal at Yale and other campuses where the late Mr. de Man had been lionized as an intellectual hero. Some former colleagues asserted that the scandal was being used to discredit deconstruction by people who were always hostile to the movement. But Mr. Derrida gave fodder to critics by defending Mr. de Man, and even using literary deconstruction techniques in an attempt to demonstrate that the Belgian scholar's newspaper articles were not really anti-Semitic.

"Borrowing Derrida's logic one could deconstruct Mein Kampf to reveal that [Adolf Hitler] was in conflict with anti-Semitism," scoffed Peter Lennon, in a 1992 article for The Guardian. According to another critic, Mark Lilla, in a 1998 article in The New York Review of Books, Mr. Derrida's contortionist defense of his old friend left "the impression that deconstruction means you never have to say you're sorry."

Almost as devastating for deconstruction and Mr. Derrida was the revelation, also in 1987, that Heidegger, one of his intellectual muses, was a dues-paying member of the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1945. Once again, Mr. Derrida was accused by critics of being irresolute, this time for failing to condemn Heidegger's fascist ideas.

Sorry, but whatever other value his thinking provides, that hits my thumb. Rest in peace, Mr. Derrida.




October 13, 2004, 6:31 PM

My dear Franklin, you just don't know how to interpret language properly. Of course, you're a painter, so one can't expect you to be much of an intellectual. "Strict code of ethics" means "strictly what suits me." You see? It's really very simple.



October 13, 2004, 7:41 PM

I seem to recall from my own school days that the study of ethics leads to the conclusion that no ultimate justification may be made, from an objective perspective, of what is ethical. We have our personal beliefs, our social systems, and that's it.

The specific ethics cited sound a lot like existentialism to me. I've come to understand that the birth of existentialism is a pretty direct result of the world-upside-down days of Europe during WWII. I think it's pretty difficult for us to imagine everyday life in that setting, so we ultimately cannot understand the mindset that led to those theories. The theories themselves, or course, we can evaluate pretty rationally. I tend to agree that deconstructionism (and existentialism, actually) is a useful way of looking at the world so long as it's not the ONLY way of looking at the world.

I'm going to make a general comment on the anti-Semitic thing, without knowing anything in particular about the facts of this matter. To be sure, whoever failed to sufficiently criticize and undermine the Nazis deserves their share of blame. Yet sometimes this six degrees of separation blame game thing happens. de Man makes an anti-Semitic statement, which taints his other writings. Derrida defends some of those other writings. Now Derrida, as well as all of HIS writings on unrelated subjects are tainted? What am I missing, because that sure does like a bit of a stretch.



October 13, 2004, 7:55 PM

It absolutely taints Derrida's unrelated writings. I stop short of calling him anti-Semitic - he was a Jew, after all - but if he can use his theory to claim that de Man's 170 contributions to Le Soir were not really anti-Semitic, then I would put no limits on his capacity for intellectual dishonesty.



October 13, 2004, 8:11 PM

Franklin: I know I am asking for trouble by saying this, but saying that the philosophical ideas of Derrida, de Man and Heidegger should be discredited because of their Nazi associations is akin to saying that Wilhelm Furtwangler and Walter Gieseking were inferior musicians for the same reason. Or, conversely, like saying that the autobahns are bad because the Nazis built them.

Deconstruction is quite discreditable on its own terms. Bringing in the Nazi associations is not only a diversion but weakens the case.



October 13, 2004, 8:26 PM

Let me clarify, then: de Man's last creation of Nazi material took place in 1945 and it seems not to have influenced his later work. I do not think that the rest of de Man's work is tainted by his involvment with Nazism.

Derrida's defense of de Man's anti-Semitic work 1987 is a different matter. Using Decon to render statements like de Man's above as "not really anti-Semitic" evinces a limitless ability to dissemble.

I'm not saying that they all have Nazi cooties on them and we should just throw them all out. I'm saying that Derrida's original product sounds intellectually dishonest, that his followers sound intellectually dishonest, and his characterization of his old friend's past failures sound extremely intellectually dishonest. That's why I suspect the rest of his writings.



October 13, 2004, 8:42 PM

I understand the distinction I am just saying that their theories should not be thrown out because of "Nazi cooties" but because, as you said, they are "intellectually dishonest". As far as I am concerned Derrida's ideas are nothing more than what years ago in college we used to call "bullshit" when our seminar professors prodded us and we had no answers. On top of that he looks like a man of questionable character; there the Nazi associations come into play. And, of course, using decon to justify something unjustifiable is grounds to suspect the whole enterprise.



October 13, 2004, 8:52 PM

Well, you have to give de Man credit for knowing when to drop a bad investment; he apparently had more sense than Derrida.

What bothers me is not so much the would-be messiahs who presume to turn the world on its ear, as if their little pet theory is just what poor, ignorant humanity has needed since the beginning of time. Such monumental egomaniacs, like roaches, will always exist, and they're quite insignificant unless enough people take them seriously. THAT is the problem, and it's THOSE people that are most contemptible.



October 13, 2004, 10:14 PM

like einstein, eh, jack?

people have all sorts of ideas. it's may be easy for you to see the shortcomings of deconstructionism now, but you're sounding a bit unhinged there, buddy.



October 14, 2004, 12:09 AM

I'm a little puzzled by your reference to Einstein, Alesh. It would never occur to me that Jack is using all that nasty language to refer to a scientist who managed to explain a good bit of the workings of the physical universe with a formula containing 5 symbolic characters.

And while it is not hard to see the shortcomings of pomo now, it was also not hard a generation ago, at least for some. I gave a very harsly worded denunciation of Postmodernism to an audience of distinguished scholars of modern languages in NY and I believe they thought I was unhinged, if not worse. That was in 1983.



October 14, 2004, 12:32 AM

This is basically a three person show F, OP and J... To and fro they go, throwing the ball... incautiously; and it bounces, time in, time off, times way off, like today. To be wise is to sense when to shut up and you cant. And no explanation or defense will matter when folly and intolerance reign.



October 14, 2004, 12:46 AM

Sorry to have disturbed you, Alesh. I should have thought it was obvious that my comment did not allude to someone like Einstein, but perhaps I overestimate my clarity. As for seeing through deconstructionism, or Saatchi, or PoMo NOW, you do me an injustice. I didn't need to know that Derrida would go so far as to blatantly, stupidly discredit himself by defending the indefensible past of an old crony who championed his Theory. That's just icing on the cake, but cake does not require icing, though it's nice if you can get it.



October 14, 2004, 1:25 AM

And at the edge of the game, GDBSU, little squirrels hide in the shadows, thinking their squirrel thoughts, nervously watching the ball go 'round. You can't play catch with a squirrel, you see. Sometimes a squirrel gets so fed up with the game that he'll run by the players and bark criticisms in his little wheezy squirrel-calls. So I toss the ball to him. Maybe he wants to play. But no - he scampers every time.

I'd enjoy hearing which of the above points go "way off."



October 14, 2004, 2:44 AM

Yes, GD get in the mix and contribute, don't just carp and run. Franklin has hundreds of readers but not that many contributors, and we often plea with the readers to comment, give opinions, argue, make points or otherwise take part. If you think we are off base , tell us how. Let's talk.



October 14, 2004, 2:48 AM

And by theway, if you look at other art blogs you will see that most of them are one person shows. This is one of the few that really seriously invites contributions, by its design, if nothing else.



October 14, 2004, 8:04 PM

Jack, unless I'm misreading your post (#7 above), you are criticizing Derrida AND other "would-be messiahs" like him. Presumably you're talking about other people who have "big ideas" that you disagree with. I was trying to point out that you don't get to choose who's ideas are important and great.

And that you have a lot of spleen for little apparent reason.

You seem to be saying that people with big ideas should keep them to them selves, and that to try to get them out is to be a "monumental egomaniac, like a roach."

I was trying to point out that a lot of those "monumental egomaniacs" actually have ideas that are pretty good.



October 14, 2004, 9:18 PM

I don't know why i find myself defending Jack all the time, as he is quite capable of doing it himself. I guess it is because I usually disagree with the nature of the attack.

Jack has every right in the world to decide whose ideas are important, Alesh. So do you and so do I. Who else? The "experts"? No thanks. I may let them convince me, but convince me they must. I learned long ago how dangerous it to take anything at face value just because it issued forth from someone with "credentials".

And so what if he is splenetic? Who cares? He is not being uncivil, or dealing in innuendo, or calling names, or any of the rather objectionable stuff we have seen so much of here. Let him be pissed off if he wants to.



October 14, 2004, 9:21 PM

Alesh: Jack totally gets to choose whose ideas are important or great - for him. Who else is going to do it? I think he overstates his case by lumping Derrida in with egomaniacs who think that their theory is just what I need, but I've been subjected to abuse by Decon's more strident followers as I cut through the thicket of babble that they've cultivated in museums, galleries, and their heads. Boy, they hate that. They would infinitely prefer that I take him seriously simply because they do. I'll consider him, sure, and I have been, but I find far more compelling ideas out there and certainly better writing.

From looking at excerpts from Derrida's writings, I now see how "questioning" and "challenging" became automatic virtues in postmodernist art. His pattern is to string questions together in a progressively convoluted manner with the goal of creating a signature effect in his prose. The effect sounds like inquiry, but real inquiry would not settle for pelting the topic with questions and free-associating the answers into existence.

Einstein serves you poorly as an example of an egomaniac. He was a pacifist, for one.



October 14, 2004, 9:28 PM

Yes, Alesh, you misread my post, and to such an extent that I doubt it's worth continuing to discuss it. Among other things, I DO get to choose whose ideas are worthwhile--we all do. The trick is in the choosing. An Einstein and a Derrida are very, very different, but as I said, I don't want to argue with you. If you disagree with me, fine.



October 14, 2004, 9:52 PM

Oldpro and Franklin, please scroll up and read post #7. It attacks not just Derrida, but anyone who thinks their ideas are important!

THAT's what I'm upset about.

Jack can decide who's ideas are important. He can decide to criticize people who he disagrees with. He can call them names (and he does). But what I have a problem with is that his post actually condemns anyone who thinks they have an important idea.



October 14, 2004, 10:51 PM

I did read it. He condemns would-be messiahs and their followers, not just anyone who thinks they have an important idea.



October 15, 2004, 12:39 AM

" . . . Derrida. What bothers me is not so much the would-be messiahs who presume to turn the world on its ear, as if their little pet theory is just what poor, ignorant humanity has needed since the beginning of time."

Unless Derrida actually thought he was a messiah, and thought his ideas were going to turn the world on its ear, I think the above sentence has to apply to anyone who has an idea on the same scope as Derrida, i.e., a new way of looking at the world. This would include Einstein (who, BY THE WAY, came up with a lot more then E=mc^2 (and some of his ideas were pretty far out)), Sartre, and Immanuel Kant.

Kant is particularly interesting because his philosophy, while almost impossible to understand when read from the direct source, is generally considered to have profoundly effected how ordinary people think about themselves and their lives.

What's easy to miss here, I think, is that if someone has a "radical" idea which affords a new way of seeing the world, they may not be in the best position to evaluate how useful it is. Thus, a great idea that occurs to someone modest may be lost, while a stupid idea in the mind of someone overconfident may get more attention then it deserves. But as a society we are better served by the latter situation, when we have the opportunity to "decide for ourselves." For that reason, I find it unjustifiable to attack "would-be messiahs."


that guy in the back row

October 15, 2004, 12:39 AM

And so with Derrida's passing so too does an era. With post modernism and Derrida now certifiably dead, with Saatchi buying paintings, and less frequent aimless ramblings from our resident Ph.D. recipients this all bodes very well for art indeed. Good job Franklin, I credit artblog for having some hand in all of this. Rest in peace Mr. Derrida.



October 15, 2004, 2:02 AM

Alesh, this is to imform you that CACA has as one of its bylaws the following:

Book 2, section 319 subparagraph 4: Would-be messiahs suck.

Therefore it is incontrovertable



October 15, 2004, 3:03 AM

Yes, yes, oldpro. Would-be messiahs suck. But if I have an idea that seems significant, even if i'm not sure myself whether it ultimately holds water, I should at least make an effort to communicate it to others. Give the meme a fighting chance.

I interpert #7 above as attacking that. Tell me you understand and i'll drop it.



October 15, 2004, 4:32 AM

Alesh, what does communicating an idea to others have to do with your original point? This is getting surreal. I think you should drop it for your own good.



October 15, 2004, 5:57 AM

Are you serious?

I'll refer to post #7 again. I don't think Jack was upset with his "would-be messiahs" for having odd flights of fancy . . . his spleen, such as it is, was directed at their desire to communicate it to others.

I'm sure reading what I've posted before would have made that clear, oldpro. Are you STILL going to play dumb?



October 15, 2004, 6:01 AM

Alesh, you're making Jack look placid by comparison... I still think you're misreading him. Good night.



October 15, 2004, 4:38 PM

No, Alesh, his spleen was directed at the people who take the messiahs seriously. This may presuppose communication, but communication was not his target. In your response (post #15) you do indeed misinterpret what he said to infer communication, but your primary point was clearly that some of these "egomaniacs" have "ideas that are pretty good".

Let's drop it.


Jerome du Bois

October 15, 2004, 8:42 PM

To All:

Let's not drop it just yet.

So sorry I'm late to the discussion, but I was tending to our two-person blog.

Congratulations, alesh, Derrida would be proud. Your word-chopping silenced Franklin, Jack, oldpro [!] and others. Amazing. You even made everybody shut up about the evil that hit Franklin's thumb: anti-Semitism, the longest hatred.

Don't even try to shut me up when it comes to Jew-hatred.

Heidigger thought the Holocaust was not worth mentioning. Really, Berel Lang got so mad about it he wrote a book about it, "Heidigger's Silence."

Plus . . . you know, I've got articles and books stacked here, but why should I start listing them? What's the matter with you people?

I think alesh is afraid of criticism and standards. alesh wants protection. From what? Here's an extended, elliptical clue, from Camille Paglia, who was there at Yale during the French invasion. Here she's writing in 1991:

We didn't need Derrida: we had Jimi Hendrix. In the blazing psychedelic guitar work of this black genius, time, space, form, voice, person were deconstructed. Floating Oriental suspensions released the categorizations of European mind. Hendrix's radical artistic statement, with its raw elemental sound-effects of earth, air, water, and fire, addressed both nature and culture and therefore dwarfed society-obsessed French thought. Psychedelia's deconstructions, unlike Derrida's, destroyed the safe and known for one purpose: expanded vision. The Sixties saw the cosmos and were awed by it. The French, frolicking in their miniature stone garden, haven't had a cosmic thought since Pascal.

What's that music? A Jew wrote it, and Jimi Hendrix immortalized it:

There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that,
And this is not our fate.
So let us not talk falsely now,
The hour is getting late.


Jerome du Bois



October 15, 2004, 11:21 PM

I didn't shut up, Jerome. I only wanted to.


Jerome du Bois

October 16, 2004, 8:43 AM

To oldpro and everyone:

Thanks for standing up for the Jews.

More importantly, hasn't anyone hooked up War of the Peace with Mike Kelley and / or Paul McCarthy? They could have a plush/homo/infantilism fest!

And did you see what Nina Arias was wearing the other night at that opening or whatever the hell it was? Well, I never . . .

Life is wonderful.

Jerome du Bois


Jerome du Bois

October 18, 2004, 11:29 AM

To All:

Just double-checking to make sure we've all moved on from this disagreeable topic, which Franklin had the bad manners to bring up.

Shigata na gai, eh?

I've probably stepped over the line of propriety here, but there's just something about the continuing deafening silence that just pisses me off. Too bad for me.

Out here in the West they talk about a day without Mexicans. Imagine a day, any day, in history, without Jews. Or Americans, for that matter.

By the way, for any of you ostriches who deign to pull your head out of the warm Florida sand, there's a real article -- this isn't about the Jews! -- it's about aesthetics, to clean the Derrida detritus out of your heads; the best I've read since she last wrote about it:

Yeah, you know who I'm talking about.

Good night. Or morning, as it may be.




October 18, 2004, 1:50 PM

Jerome, thanks as always for looking out for my tribe. Although there's plenty of culpability to spread around between Derrida, de Man, and Heidegger regarding Jew hatred, including a whiff of self-loathing from Derrida, it does appear on the positive side that, one, de Man repented (I'm not in the once-a-Nazi, always-a-Nazi camp), and two, Derrida said towards the end of his career that justice and friendship were too important to be deconstructed. Derrida seems to have tried to defend his departed friend, which I find noble in intention. What galls me is the subterfuge and intellectual contortion he went through to do it, which indicates to me that while any tool can be misused, decon seems to be especially effective for kicking truth in the groin.

I confess to knowing nearly nothing about Heidegger, but I do wonder why Derrida didn't just come out and say, "Look, this guy had a huge moral failure over the Shoah but he came up with some interesting ideas." Maybe he felt his influence waning, maybe he stayed silent after his failed defense of de Man.

Thanks for the Paglia quotes - I haven't read her since grad school. Reading her now makes me think that going back into academe might not be such a drag after all.



October 18, 2004, 7:50 PM

Jerome: Paglia notes that students are not interested in dense, longwinded literary work (when were they?), and then she goes on, and on, and on....


Jerome du Bois

October 18, 2004, 9:51 PM


Your riposte is up to your usual standards. You really sent her packing, didn't you? Good work!

And once again, stay off the topic that started this thread: whatever you do, ignore the Jay Eee Double-U Esses.




October 18, 2004, 10:11 PM

I'm really, really not crazy about some of Paglia's ideas, but I'd have to go back and re-read some of her stuff to articulate that better--it's been awhile.



October 18, 2004, 10:18 PM

Jerome: because this kind of exchange eliminates vocal tonality and because of your elliptical manner I sometimes read what you say as straight comment and sometimes as heavily weighted with sarcasm. All of this is OK with me, but what you are implying just above left me guessing.


Jerome du Bois

October 19, 2004, 1:31 AM


You really, really need to bring your brain, and your lunch, to anwhere near where Camille Paglia is writing.


Your best sentence, your best thought, could not hold a candle to Camille Paglia's least sentence, or her least thought. Clear it up any? For you to dismiss her as longwinded is simply stupid and lazy. You give her nothing. I know what she is and has given the world, and still does. What do you have to show?

Come on, oldamateur, pick a sentence, a single sentence, from that essay, and improve it, in structure, tone, intent, message, length, any damn way you can come up with.

And did I misspell JEWS? What do you people need, NEON?!

You people have got me working something up about this on my own damn blog. Stay tuned.




October 19, 2004, 4:11 PM

Easy, Jerome, Don't get your bowels in an uproar, as we used to say as kids. Paglia is OK but she is as much a windbag as most academics are. All that stuff abouty "the Young", for example, takes no consideration that "the Young" are just that, the young, and they are immature, and she lays way too much weight on their various reactions, which are immature reactions. They don't need to be studied and indulged, they need to be shown how to grow up.

And anyone who claims a Warhol "Marilyn diptych" as one of her favorite works of art is out of the loop as far as I am concerned.

If you would make your points a little more clearly it would be easier to respond to them.


Jerome du Bois

October 19, 2004, 5:09 PM


I don't judge the quality of my clarity by your reactions, that's for sure. I write what I write; if you can't follow, goodbye. Only an idiot calls Camille Paglia a windbag. (I guess you couldn't find a sentence to improve.)

And once again -- this is getting tiresome -- you avoid the reason this thread was created. I'm tired of all you cowards, and don't tell me to calm down when anti-Semitism is epidemic in Europe. You just keep keeping your tight little mouths shut, people. You dropped it, remember?




October 19, 2004, 5:21 PM

Well, I enjoy sparring with you, Jerome, but having to wade through deliberate obscurantism only to be called an idiot and a coward for no discernable reason is not for me. Sorry.



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