Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Deriding Derrida

In an obituary no less. Here are some choice cuts from The Economist:

The inventor of “deconstruction”—an ill-defined habit of dismantling texts by revealing their assumptions and contradictions—was indeed, and unfortunately, one of the most cited modern scholars in the humanities.

Nice intro.

There has always been a market for obscurantism. Socrates railed against the followers of Heraclitus of Ephesus for much the same reasons that Mr Derrida's critics berate his unfortunate disciples:

If you ask one of them a question, they draw out enigmatic little expressions from their quiver, so to speak, and shoot one off; and if you try to get hold of an account of what that one meant, you're transfixed by another novel set of metaphors. You'll never get anywhere with any of them.

Subjected to his weak puns (“logical phallusies” was a famous example), bombastic rhetoric and illogical ramblings, an open-minded reader might suspect Mr Derrida of charlatanism. That would be going too far, however. He was a sincere and learned man, if a confused one, who offered some academics and students just what they were looking for.

Well, at least he meant well.

Mr Derrida's style of deconstruction flowered especially in American departments of comparative literature, where it became interwoven with Marxism, feminism and anti-colonialism. Although by the early 1980s French academics had largely tired of trying to make sense of him, America's teachers of literature increasingly embraced Mr Derrida. Armed with an impenetrable new vocabulary, and without having to master any rigorous thought, they could masquerade as social, political and philosophical critics. Mr Derrida always denied any responsibility for the undisciplined nihilism of his imitators, who gave the strong impression that deconstructionism had somehow succeeded in undermining, or even in refuting, the notion of objective truth. But his work could not easily be interpreted in any other way.

His legacy proudly lives on college campuses across the country. Merci beaucoup Jacques.

A crisis came in 1987. The New York Times revealed that Paul de Man, a friend of Mr Derrida's and one of America's leading deconstructionists, had written anti-Semitic articles for a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper in 1940-42. Coincidentally, also in 1987, evidence began to emerge of the hidden Nazi past of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who had been a major influence on Mr Derrida. Mr Derrida's response was disastrous. He used deconstructionist techniques to defend the two men, laying down a fog of convoluted rhetoric in a doomed attempt to exonerate them. This fed straight into the hands of his critics, who had always argued that the playful evasiveness of deconstruction masked its moral and intellectual bankruptcy. The New York Review of Books quipped that deconstruction means never having to say you're sorry.

Sounds like a philosophy that Dan Rather has embraced.

In his final years he became increasingly concerned with religion, and some theologians started to show interest in his work. God help them.

And God help all those who fall under the spell of Derrida.


Blogger pst314 said...

"He used deconstructionist techniques to defend the two men, laying down a fog of convoluted rhetoric in a doomed attempt to exonerate them."

Derrida also used less intellectual techniques:

"In his amazing response to his critics, 'Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments," Derrida came out swinging. Not the substance of his reply but its hyperbole and belligerence made this an unforgettable performance. It was a sustained rant, proceeding not by argumentation but by invective. Rather than refute his critics, Derrida heaped ridiculed them, heaped contempt on their heads, spewed out vitriol."

Derrida was not just dishonest and hypocritical, he was also malicious.

One of his critics wrote:

"Analyzing Derrida's prose in 'Like the Sound of a See Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man's War,' Kendrick thought he could discern five propositions 'looming in the murk.' The five: '(1) World War II did not take place; (2) World War II took place in Paul de Man's left ear; (3) World War II took place, but only in newspapers; (4) Paul de Man's left ear was made of newspapers; (5) deconstruction is the unfortunate byproduct of the French conditional.'"

--Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, by David Lehman (Poseidon Press / Simon and Schuster, 1991, 1992, 320 pages)

"Signs of the Times" is a fascinating exploration (and indictment) of deconstruction and its advocates. Well worth reading.

6:55 PM  

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