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.