Wednesday, July 13, 2005
A Respose to “The Deconstructive Angel”
This is a guest post by Adam Kotsko, graduate student at the Chicago Theological Seminary and proprietor of The Weblog. He is on vacation from blogging this week so he can blog at the Valve.
I wish to take issue primarily with one sentence in M. H. Abrams’ contribution to Theory’s Empire, “The Deconstructive Angel”; it is exemplary of the register in which Abrams’ misreading operates:
What is distinctive about Derrida is first that, like other French structuralists, he shifts his inquiry from language to écriture, the written or printed text; and second that he conceives a text in an extraordinarily limited fashion (202).
The second half of this sentence is just exactly wrong. If one is to object to Derrida’s conception of “text”—and reasonable people can certainly do so—then one can only object that it is too expansive. The text becomes a metaphor, and more than a metaphor, for everything else, every other aspect of life that is accessible to human meaning. The text becomes exemplary precisely because philosophical texts are the repositories wherein the movement of a philosophical thought can be traced and tested for the coherence it seeks. The idea that an author intended something is not in question here, at all, whatever we might finally mean by “intend.” Nor is there any trace of the idea that that intention is completely inaccessible to us (it is available—usually in another text, in the literal sense of the word).
The question is whether meaning escapes or overflows that intention and whether it necessarily does so. The answer to both questions seems to be yes, and it seems that Abrams would, if pressed, admit this: “I would agree that there is a diversity of sound (though not equally adequate) interpretations of the play King Lear….” Why should they all be sound? How do we measure this soundness? Abrams says: “If it is sound, this interpretation approximates, closely enough for the purpose at hand, what the author meant” (200). But why “what the author meant”? For a historian of ideas, what the author meant may not be terribly relevant—we could all think of texts that have been widely misunderstood according to scholarly standards of reading and of reconstructing authorial intention, but were influential precisely insofar as they were misunderstood (for example, the Bible), or at least entered into public discussion only as they were misunderstood. Why is it that this should happen? Are not all texts made up of relatively simple units such as “Pray you undo this button,” a sentence that Abrams claims, as do I, to understand in a rather precise way? What is it that keeps texts from being relatively transparent?
These are questions that Abrams is simply not asking. There is no particular reason that he has to be asking them, but there is also no particular reason to dismiss such questions out of hand in favor of a relatively unexamined “common sense” approach—an approach that is, in fact, “good enough” for the purpose at hand, but again, why is it good enough? Why is it self-evident that recovering the author’s meaning is the goal of literary study, and if the goal of writing is to convey a more or less obvious meaning, then why is it that we elevate to the stature of literary monuments people who seem to do a very poor job of that (as evidenced by the fact that we need literary scholars at all)? And if it is the case that something like “one” meaning of the text is something we wish to uncover, why is it that we need a plurality of readings in order to surround and trap it? And why is it taking scholars so long to figure out that definitive meaning, even of relatively simple texts?
It seems to me that these are the kinds of questions that at least some literary scholars need to ask, and in fact that some were asking even before the advent of theory properly-so-called—as Abrams admits before the sentence to which I object above, with reference to the New Critics. Indeed, for the New Critics, something like meaning or authorial intention could very well be taken to be a textual effect (“What the master achieves is what he intended”) and future writers or readers could retrospectively change the shape of the textual tradition (as in Tradition and the Individual Talent); they do not get to that conclusion by the precise route that Derrida takes, but there is room for a dialogue there.
And in fact, I think it would have been better had that dialogue taken place in a less adversarial way. That is, it would have been better if the advocates of what has become contemporary literary theory would not have set themselves up as doing something qualitatively different from anyone before. First of all, it is a misrepresentation of what the (primarily) French scholars who inspired literary theorists were up to. Derrida is, in my opinion, the greatest and most exciting thinker of the 20th century, but he did not divide the history of the West in two with the mighty force of his intellect or attempt to. In fact, he is great and exciting precisely insofar as he continues a tradition or intertwines several traditions—including primarily phenomenology, then also structuralism and psychoanalysis, adding others as his career progressed. Part of the problem is that he deploys argumentative strategies that sound very radical and reductive to Anglo-American ears but are in fact common currency in the continental European tradition. That is, he finds the marginal case and uses that to illustrate the normal; the best example of this in the twentieth century is Freud, for whom the study of neurotics comes to inform normal people, leading Lacan to say later that normal human behavior is a subspecies of neurosis. More generally, though, Derrida is in many respects a very conservative thinker, and one must start from that conservatism in order to measure the ways in which he is radical. But again, this conservatism can seem highly radical to thinkers who are attempting to graft Derrida into a tradition (or cover over a tradition using Derrida) in which many of Derrida’s key reference points have historically been marginal at best.
So yes, it sounds wildly disproportionate to say that there is nothing outside of the text and that meaning is radically undetermined, but Derrida is not really talking about everyday situations. He is specifically talking about a very special class of texts (that is, philosophical texts) that make very special kinds of claims (that is, a degree of coherence and comprehensiveness to which King Lear does not aspire). He doesn’t think that those texts can make good on the claims they make for themselves, and he thinks he knows why. How much does that affect the way you read a sentence where someone asks to have a button undone? Probably not much. But it does help to clarify that (a) philosophical texts are written, and subject to the same vagaries as any other written text (even, and exemplarily, a written text reputed to have been inspired) and (b) there is a certain glory in being merely written—as is shown in Derrida’s later work, where he makes continual, insistent reference precisely to literature as the result and condition of modern democracy, as “freedom of speech” in action, enabling and producing further speech/writing, further traces by which we continue to meet each other, often in quite disconcerting or pleasantly surprising ways.
To the extent that Abrams is right that deconstruction as deployed in literary studies “begins as an intentional, goal-oriented quest; and … this quest is to end in an impasse” (207), then deconstruction has become not only boring, but a caricature of itself. Coming to the conclusion that every literary text is a testament to the impossibility of meaning (or whatever cliché we want to put here) is precisely the kind of closed-off thinking that deconstruction hopes to find the conditions for avoiding. It is an abdication of the responsibility of the critic to find always the same meaning in a text, especially when inspired by a reader who is always finding new and unexpected possibilities in texts—but then, I think it’s also an abdication of the responsibility of the critic to find that every literary text in the canon is an indication of the greatness of its author, or of universal human values, or of whatever else.
M. H. Abrams is a true scholar, and his intervention, rather early on in the history of theory, provides a model that one wishes were more often followed. First, it evinces none of the laziness that so often accompanies the sweeping dismissals of theory that have achieved – contrary to the persecution complex of many anti-theory advocates – a clear hegemony in the broader public sphere, and indeed, in many areas of academia outside of the humanities. Abrams tracked down and read two of the most challenging essays in Margins of Philosophy, before they were widely available in translation, often quoting the French text in addition to providing his own translation, the kind of scholarship that is nowhere present in the recent “take-downs” of theory, particularly of the “theorists don’t understand science” variety that are universally cited as having discredited the enterprise of literary theory. Abrams knows he is dealing with serious thinkers in Derrida and Hillis Miller, and he shows them the respect due to serious thinkers. In addition, perhaps due to his wide erudition in Romantic literature, he displays a genuine admiration for the audacity of deconstructive though. Who can imagine any contemporary opponent of literary theory quoting a passage like this—
Derrida’s vision is thus, as he puts it, of an “as yet unnamable something which cannot announce itself except… under the species of a non-species, under the formless form, mute, infant, and terrifying, of monstrosity”
—without the slightest hint of snark or derision?
That was, of course, a different time. Deconstruction was still new to the American scene (Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight, for example, was published only five years earlier); the Derrida translation industry had not yet kicked into full gear (Writing and Difference, for example, would not be published in English for two more years). Perhaps then, a prominent scholar could afford an indulgent attitude toward the romantic young upstart, but when theory constitutes an Empire that is on the verge of collapse, then perhaps a decidedly more negative tone is appropriate, similar to the apocalyptic rhetoric of certain Jewish, then Christian, sects in that other Empire that was always-already decaying.
But I digress. My goal in this essay has been to show, first, that even given the information that Abrams had ready to hand, he was wrong about Derrida in a fairly decisive way. That is, I do not intend here to claim that Abrams should have had to read everything that Derrida has ever written, and then to request to review Derrida’s notes for works that he had not yet written, in order to adequately understand what he read. I consent, as a practical matter, to the common-sense principles of reading that Abrams outlines in his essay and plan to argue merely that Abrams oversimplifies Derrida’s work, in the shape it had taken by that early date, in ways that lead him ultimately into a match of shadow-boxing. Second, I wish to claim that this misunderstanding is not entirely Abrams’ fault and that, if Derrida’s exponents in the United States had corrected that misunderstanding at the time (which may well have been a misunderstanding they shared), then perhaps we could have avoided the shameful scene of American scholars writing eulogies of Derrida in which it is claimed that he was a bad person.
to show, first, that even given the information that Abrams had ready to hand, he was wrong about Derrida in a fairly decisive way.
Well, you said one of his claims is “exactly wrong,” which sounds to me like being wrong in a completely decisive way. But either way, doesn’t whether Abrams is wrong depend just a bit on what he means by the claim that Derrida “conceives a text in an extraordinarily limited fashion?” So what do you think he means?
In any case, let’s keep in mind that, for D., “the text becomes,” as you say, “a metaphor, and more than a metaphor, for everything else.” Mightn’t there still be something “extraordinarily limited” about the way he “conceives a text?”
I think Abrams means what he explicitly says later on: Derrida conceives of text as only ink on paper, and (bizarrely enough) Abrams seems to think that Derrida focuses on texts because they are the only firm evidence we have, as opposed to shadowy ideas like authorial intention, etc.
Abrams then posits difference as a separate entity that “works wonders” with the text, whereas for Derrida, textuality as such “is” the play of difference (i.e., not just the inert marks on the page).
So if Derrida’s conception of text is limited, it is not limited in the way that Abrams takes it to be (over-literal). In fact, since Derrida’s conception of text is on the face of it so expansive, I think you’d have to go into severe contortions to come up with the way that his conception of text as such is limited—it would probably be better to argue that because of his overly expansive concept of text, Derrida’s thought is extremely limited. I don’t think one would be quite on the mark if one made that argument, but it’s at least defensible.
Adam, this might sound like a very pedestrian criticism, but in this post you defend Derrida from Abrams without ever offering a direct quote from Derrida.
I’m not saying you’re wrong about JD, but that your criticism of Abrams would be stronger if it had some direct quotes behind it.
It would also be good if you went and tracked down the J. Hillis Miller review of Abrams’ book that Abrams is responding to in “The Deconstructive Angel.” Abrams may (or may not) be wrong about Derrida, but is he right about Hillis Miller? (The American practitioners of deconstruction changed it in certain ways, and adopted a rather combative tone in espousing it.)
I’m not convinced, Adam. It’s generous and right of you to note Abrams’s imposing seriousness, but not really fair to use that as a stick against later critics of deconstruction or Theory in general, since after all Abrams’s seriousness and generosity earned him among American proponents of poststructuralism exactly no credibility. (As he notes, Miller had already tarred him with the inaccurate charge of philosophical naivete—the tactic, that as John has pointed out, defenders of Theory have returned to countless times since.) It’s hard to blame later critics for not taking up Abrams’s route having seen that example. There’s no sense in continuing a game when your opponents show that they won’t play fair.
Likewise, while it’s certainly true that the anti-Theory view has achieved “a clear hegemony in the broader public sphere,” that fact has little bearing on life in the academy—except perhaps that it encourages the sense of defensiveness and special mission that (at least in one view) contributed to the Theory phenomenon in the first place.
I think Zehou’s right, too, that you’re not quite giving Abrams’s criticism of Derrida as much credibility as you might—especially given the fact that, as you say, Abrams could only have read very little of the Derrida oeuvre at this point. Yes, it’s true that Abrams says Derrida “conceives a text in an extraordinarily limited fashion” and that remark may look out of keeping with Derrida’s comments about, e.g., the general text. But Abrams comment comes in the context of noting that Derrida’s “inquiry into language” can be distinguishes from the linguistic turn of analytic philosophy. The more obvious meaning of his comment in this context, I think, is that Derrida has an extraordinarily limited account of language, which Derrida equates with text. As Abrams says—completely reasonably, I’d think--Derrida has a “graphocentric model” and this model
“puts out of play . . . every source of norms, controls, or indicatots which, in the ordinary use and experience of language, set a limit to what we can mean and what we can be understood to mean. . . . [H]e leaves us no place for referring to how we learn to speak, understand, or read language, and how, by interaction with more competent users and by our own developing experience with language we come to recognize and correct our mistakes in speaking or understanding.”
Tallis, I believe, would describe this phenomen by saying that Derrida denies the role of deixis. I don’t have the basic knowledge to judge whether Tallis’s invocation of deixis would have any credibility in the philosophy of language, but I think it is possible to say that Tallis and Abrams, along with Searle, both point to commonplace, utterly familiar features of language use that deconstruction systematically ignores. It seems perfectly reasonable to describe it therfore as having a limited view.
Nor, I think, is it fair to say that Abrams dismisses important “questions out of hand in favor of a relatively unexamined ‘common sense’ approach”—a charge that comes pretty near to resusciating the naivete argument. What Abrams is arguing rather is that there’s no compelling reason to believe that it’s necessarily impossible for readers to know what writer’s meant. Following the remark you quote (which I think importantly does not occur in the context of the reference to Lear), Abrams says the following:
<i>Notice that I am speaking here of linguistic interpretation, not of what is confusingly called “historical interpretation”—that is, the categories, topics, and conceptual and explanatory patterns that the historian brings to his investigation of texts, which serve to shape the story whithin which passages of texts, with their linguistic meanings, serve as instances and evidence. The differences among these organizing categories, topics, and patterns effect the diersity in the stories that different historians tell, and which a pluralist theory finds acceptable. Undeniably the linguistic meanings of the passages cited are in some degress responsive to differences in the perspective that a historian brings to bear on them; but the linguistic meansings are also to a considerable degree recalcitrant to alternations in perspective.”
So Abrams doesn’t deny the possibility of interpretive pluralism, and he certainly doesn’t deny the kind of history of reception you refer to. Nor does he even deny that there might well be non-historical forms of intepretation. He doesn’t say, in other words, that you can’t read a text with indifference to its author’s meaning—only that you can read with attention to authorial meaning if you so choose. (He does ask why we should be interested in reading without an interest in intention. But that’s a fair question and one I think he leaves open. Daniel would presumable have an answer.)
Finally, I know absurdly little about Derrida and am intrigued by your counterfamilar account. But I’m not yet convinced either that “he did not divide the history of the West in two with the mighty force of his intellect or attempt to” or that he is only “talking about a very special class of texts (that is, philosophical texts) that make very special kinds of claims.” About the latter, Derrida seems to have a strong model of language in general; even if he himself mainly applies it to philosophical texts, if it is a model of language in general, then there’s no inconsistency in applying it to ordinary communication or literary writing. About the former, here’s a remark from Of Grammatology I quoted on Michael Bérubé’s site the other day: “the unity of all that allows itself to be attempted today through the most diverse concepts of science and writing, is, in principle, more or less covertly yet always, determined by an historico-metaphysical epoch of which we merely glimpse the closure” (Spivak trans., 4). That looks exactly like dividing the history of the west through the mighty force of his intellect to me.
I disagree. I think Adam’s piece is stronger without direct quotes. Anyone serious about critizing Derrida (and not just by proxy contamination via his American “practitioners"--God is this a tired debate) should reasonably be expected to extend more courtesy to his texts than the approach direct quotes would allow, or suggest was sufficient. The burden of proof is on them. Abrams is certainly not being careful about qualifying his remarks to extend only to Hillis Miller.
That said, direct quotes wouldn’t be hard to find.
whoops, sorry about screwing up the html tags. must click preview!
double or triple whoops. apologies for the many typos and for not including page #s. The long passages I quoted are from pp 202-203 and 200 of TE respectively.
Matt: “Anyone serious about critizing Derrida (and not just by proxy contamination via his American “practitioners"--God is this a tired debate) should reasonably be expected to extend more courtesy to his texts than the approach direct quotes would allow, or suggest was sufficient. The burden of proof is on them.”
That’s really odd, Matt. Kotsko made it clear that Abrams read Derrida seriously. And Kotsko himself has clearly read Derrida seriously. So the only one left along the chain is the reader of Kotsko’s essay. Are you saying the Kotsko should not quote Derrida directly because that would suggest to Kotsko’s readers that they could disagree with Kotsko (and therefore, at second hand, with Derrida) without reading Derrida’s work?
For those with access to JSTOR, here is a link to Miller’s review of Natural Supernaturalism. (For those who don’t, send me an email. We’ll “chat.") Miller’s response to Abrams’ essay, for reasons explained in an editorial preface to the “Limits of Pluralism” debate in CI 3, no.3 (Spring 1977), is 1) a typically deconstructive counter-account of the role of the critic as “parasite” and 2) incredibly frustrating as a response. Miller mashes Wayne Booth’s remark that a “deconstructivist” reading of a work is “plainly and simply parasitical” with Abrams’ clause “the obvious or univocal reading.” Miller argues, via rhetorical question, “Or can host and parasite live happily together, in the domicile of the same text, feeding each other or sharing the food?” In this essay, however, he could--contra my late contention--be considered a bit of an ass in his response: e.g. to the claim that “if ‘deconstructionist principles’ are taken seriously ... ‘any history which relies on written texts becomes an impossibility,’” he responds “So be it. That is not much of an argument.” However, I think it would be easy to overlook the fact that “The Limits of Pluralism” was a panel, and despite revision, all the texts reflect the limitations of the panel environment. For example, a reader cannot know that Hillis Miller dresses, sounds and behaves like a soft-spoken Quaker. (And yes, I mean soft-spoken for a Quaker.)
That said, I take issue with Matt’s assertion that Derrida’s own prose does a disservice to his argument, especially in light of the fact that his style is often contended to constitute part of his argument.
My lack of quotation of Derrida stems primarily from my recognitions of the limitations of the blog post as a genre. Second, I have also been in too many Derrida debates where the discussion devolves into petty exegesis (or eisegesis) of the individual texts quoted. Derrida seems to me usually to start with global statements about a text (or else to say, sometimes in a back-handed way, “You’d better read the whole thing if you haven’t yet, then come back to my essay") before “problematizing” certain patches of the writing—there is nothing to indicate that individual sentences or even whole paragraphs can help with much of anything if a reading of “the whole thing” is not presupposed.
So in any case: a global dismissal of Derrida based on particular texts is met by a global affirmation of Derrida based on my feel for the shape of his project as a whole (which I have gained from reading far more Derrida than I can reasonably expect others to read, as well as from translating one of his texts). It is what it is.
I know it could be better in absolute terms, but I think it basically does what a blog post about M. H. Abrams’ reading of Derrida should do.
"Are you saying the Kotsko should not quote Derrida directly because that would suggest to Kotsko’s readers that they could disagree with Kotsko (and therefore, at second hand, with Derrida) without reading Derrida’s work?”
Huh. In this context, would that really be so odd?
Quoting from a text here, unless done at sufficient length or to make an extremely precise point, would no doubt amount to offering it up on the chopping block, and would probably be the quickest way to ensure the continuity of this mind-numbingly circular debate.
Anyway Adam has understood my point.
That seems extraordinarily ungenerous, Matt. Adam’s got an interesting and (so far as I’m aware) unfamiliar account of Derrida that he charges Abrams with not understanding. Perhaps Adam doesn’t need to explain that in greater depth, or perhaps can’t in the limits of a blog post. But so far there’s been no snark or name calling in this thread. No one’s made any especially obnoxious dismissals of Derrida or Adam. So, it seems that you’ve discounted any criticism of Derrida in advance by association with previously expressed views and, based on no evidence that I can see, you’ve already accused the rest of us with bad faith. Unfair.
Thanks for posting the links, Scott. I think you’re description of Miller is actually generous to him. Abrams’s forbearance is still more striking in context.
It’s been a while, but I always thought that Miller was one of crudest and least interesting of Derrida’s American epigones. Isn’t he the one that people usually point out how Derrida’s American followers have done him a disservice?
I honestly never took much of what he said too seriously because he didn’t seem particularly serious to me - more of an intellectual bruiser than anything. But like I said, it has been a while.
I’m not sure why a quotation, provided with both a local context (i.e. how it functions in a particular work) and a global context (how it functions in Derrida’s corpus), would necessarily lead to sweeping affirmations or dismissals of the viability of Derridian thought. More to the point, I don’t see why quoting Miller on Derrida, or Miller on deconstruction, would necessary lend itself to swift dismissals...esp. considering the fact that in both the Miller essay to which Abrams responds and Miller’s response to Abrams, that is, in both those essays Miller engages in a patient, compelling justification of the usefulness of deconstruction to literary scholars.
Also, I don’t necessarily buy the idea it’s impossible to transcend the limits of the medium. Yes, this is a blog; but it is also trying to demonstrate that blogs can contribute, meaningfully, to scholarly debate. I don’t think citation--even “done at sufficient length or to make an extremely precise point"--is verboten.
Thanks to Scott for posting the links to the various primary documents in all this.
I’m actually finding both of Hillis Miller’s essays to be fascinating and worth exploring in their own right (and not merely as shadows of Derrida).
The review of Natural Supernaturalism, for one thing, is actually quite complimentary to Abrams at many moments, and is brimming with ideas and questions that have little to do with the broad debate about language/meaning/intention we seem to have drifted into again.
Indeed, Adam, I would be curious to discuss both Abrams’ book and J.Hillis Miller’s first response with you sometime. Abrams’ book argues that the Romantics are essentially contiguous with medieval and ancient Christian writers, even though their work shows signs of secularization.
J. Hillis Miller accepts this as a plausible characterization (which is surprising, actually), but in his review asks—again and again—why this is the case. Why is secularization so hard, slow, and twisty? Why is the influence of religious narrative and imagery so compelling for Wordsworth and his peers? Miller is most interesting to me anyway when he’s gesturing at deconstruction’s own ambivalence on the subject. On the one hand, he (like Derrida in those days) doesn’t accept anything that smells metaphysical, so part of his frustration with Abrams is the latter’s seeming equanimity about metaphysics (and by extension, religion) in romanticism. On the other hand, any absolute transformation or break (any absolute negation, we could say) looks fishy to a good deconstructionist… Shouldn’t we be deconstructing the Death of God too (i.e., as an event that reinscribes the divine as that which is lacking)?
In short, there’s another, potentially richer side of this we could be discussing. But maybe we’ll get into the deconstruction/theology debate at another time and place…
I have a very, very difficult time imagining Hillis Miller as “Derrida’s Bulldog,” even though I know the evidence points to the contrary. For reasons with which I’m not entirely familiar, Hillis took on the public role of deconstructive explication, a role that earned him an unjust reputation. I’ve always wondered what the relation of Hillis’ personality and his prominent roll as the official target of anti-deconstructive ire to be. As I mentioned, he has the demeanor of a soft-spoken Quaker, which leads me to believe that those who thought Derrida the Anti-Christ preferred to deal with Hillis on account of his being so gentle, so polite. Not that his arguments are, mind you: the man can quote Hegel, in German, from memory. If any ever has, his intellect deserves the adjective “towering.”
As for the quality of his readings, well, his early deconstructive work isn’t at all crude (as evidenced by the links above). He reads carefully, attentively, and with an eye for detail that’s unrivaled. However, if one’s inclined to think deconstruction irresponsible, Hillis would no doubt appear to be launching brickbats indiscriminately.
Interesting. Why then contribute a blog post on that is indirectly about Derrida at all, if the primary goal is to avoid continuation of “this mind-numbingly circular debate”? Adam has seemingly understood your point, but the mere existence of his post suggests that he does not fully agree with it.
Let’s try an experiment in sampling. Here is a paragraph quoted at random from _Différance_, by Jacques Derrida (trans Alan Bass, Margins of Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1982, 3-27), as reproduced in http://www.hydra.umn.edu/derrida/diff.html:
‘Now if we consider the chain in which différance lends itself to a certain number of nonsynonymous substitutions, according to the necessity of the context, why have recourse to the “reserve,” to “archi-writing,” to the “archi-trace,” to “spacing,” that is, to the “supplement,” or to the pharmakon, and soon to the hymen, to the margin- mark-march, etc.’
I’m interested to see whether your theory is correct.
Oops. My comment above was directed to Matt, if that isn’t obvious.
Amardeep—That really does sound like just my kind of thing, and I do have a decent background in Romanticism. I will definitely put it on my list of things to follow up on.
Others—I tend to think that the blog post qua blog post can be a forum for a certain kind of serious discussion.
Re: the unity of all that allows itself to be attempted today through the most diverse concepts of science and writing, is, in principle, more or less covertly yet always, determined by an historico-metaphysical epoch of which we merely glimpse the closure
One who “merely glimpse[s]” something is not usually the same person who is causing the thing, since, you know, he’s “merely” (only, simply, just, etc.) “glimpsing” (i.e., not breaking Western thought in two with the force of his intellect, unless you grant Derrida amazing telekinetic powers such that merely a “glimpse” can cause major changes). Overall, the deployment of this quotation seems to be a case of “Adam says Derrida’s not trying to be as revolutionary as lit people make him out to be; but this passage sounds overblown, so what I’ve heard about Derrida must be true.”
C’mon, Adam, gimme a break. I wrote a long reply to your post and you respond by questioning my motives in the most dismissive of ways. I’m quite willing to make an effort to take an exchange about Derrida seriously, and have tried to do that so far, but if this is the kind of response I’m gonna get I’ve gotta wonder whether it will be worth my effort.
Yes, you offer a characterization of Derrida that’s unfamiliar to me, and one that doesn’t fit with my memory of the brief but intense reading I did of him 15 to 20 years ago (not, by the way, just “what I’ve heard about Derrida"). So I offer what seems to me not an unrepresentative quotation. Maybe my understanding is off, maybe the passage isn’t representative, maybe there are other possibilities, but in principle there’s nothing illegitimate about bringing the passage up and asking why my impression of it is wrong.
My understanding of the passage, btw, is that Derrida is saying something to the effect of: “everything we do now occurs under the reign of western metaphysics, but certain things we attempt today allow us to just barely glimpse the apocalytpic end of that reign.” If that reading isn’t wrong, it would indeed be testimony to Derrida’s amazing powers since it would say that for millenia western humanity has been in the grip of a constraint that Derrida in particular is just extraordinary enough to turn against itself and imagine a freedom from. That he could only glimpse this freedom wouldn’t in this view be a sign of his limitations but of his grandeur since it would suggest that the power of metaphysics is overwhelming. A glimpse in this context would be I think pretty clearly something akin to a prophetic ability. It makes Derrida look like Moses on Pisgah.
Just so it’s clear that I’m not trying to cherry pick, here’s the final paragraphs of the (dare I say) epochal “Structure, Sign, and Play” essay:
There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of freeplay. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from freeplay and from the order of the sign, and lives like an exile the necessity of interpretation. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology-in other words, through the history of all of his history-has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of the game. The second interpretation of interpretation, to which Nietzsche showed us the way, does not seek in ethnography, as Levi-Strauss wished, the “inspiration of a new humanism” (again from the “Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss").
There are more than enough indications today to suggest we might perceive that these two interpretations of interpretation-which are absolutely irreconcilable even if we live them simultaneously and reconcile them in an obscure economy-together share the field which we call, in such a problematic fashion, the human sciences.
For my part, although these two interpretations must acknowledge and accentuate their difference and define their irreducibility, I do not believe that today there is any question of choosing-in the first place because here we are in a region (let’s say, provisionally, a region of historicity) where the category of choice seems particularly trivial; and in the second, because we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the difference of this irreducible difference. Here there is a sort of question, call it historical, of which we are only glimpsing today the conception, theformation, the gestation, the labor. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the business of childbearing-but also with a glance toward those who, in a company from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.
Is the gist of that passage not (ironically) a rewriting of the myth of the cave? Derrida is among the company of the timid, but he in particular can anticipate the birth of monstrosity? And does that not suggest breaking the history of the west in two?
I see my comments have been twisted in all kinds of directions in no time. I certainly intended no disrespect to either Hillis Miller or to Adam(!) That’s a ridiculous insinuation, and rather separate to the point I made. Obviously, to defend my assertion about the circularity of this anti-theory (sorry, anti-Theory) debate would require a fuller, more fleshed-out argument. Mabye later.
The goal of Adam’s post, which to me seemed to understand already the point I made and which Adam, by the way, has now just made again--seemed to be to give Abrams the response he warranted in a hostile medium already thriving on sweeping caricatures.
If the goal is to discuss Derrida, and not just indict him (along with a certain symptomatic mash-up?) while at the same time simply ignoring certain questions that are, as Adam says above, rather central to Derrida’s work, then maybe a different defense would be warranted.
Let me just add that I am in full agreement with the wonderful paragraph that states:
“And in fact, I think it would have been better had that dialogue taken place in a less adversarial way.”
To assume, however, as Holbo does below, that advocates of Theory (as opposed to thinkers like Derrida himself? the lingering ambiguity of this distinction is itself profoundly unfair!) are the primary ones to blame for this tone...is something I suppose still open to debate.
Thanks Adam, for such a wonderful and responsible (albeit somewhat resigned and perhaps prematurely concessionary) post. I won’t be taking up any more space in this comment thread as I must go make dinner now.
My response to your long post was in fact lazy and uncharitable, and I apologize.
I do take Derrida to be saying something more along the lines of “the world is changing, and I and many of my colleagues recognize it and try to understand how it is happening and why.” My “split the history of Western thought in two” was a reference to Nietzsche, who could be regarded as trying to start a new era of human history single-handedly, through sheer force of will (new Bible, new values, etc.). And even in, say, the “first three” books, we already have indications that there were people in previous generations who saw that this epochal shift was coming—Heidegger, for example, but also Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Levinas. And there’s a sense in which the Terrible Machine of Logocentrism or whatever you want to call it simply undoes itself, in itself, always. This emphasis does come out more clearly in later works, but it seems to me to be traceable in the early stuff.
At no point, in my reading, does Derrida pull the kind of “everything’s subjective” stunt of which he so often is accused—it’s a matter of trying to allow the text (or the philosophical system or whatever) to unravel itself.
But overall, the early stuff does have this kind of weird apocalypticism, which goes away over time.
Thanks, Adam. My only familiarity is with the early stuff, so I’ll be happy to accept your claim that the there-be-monsters line goes away over time. And, agreed, the tone is different from Nietzsche. But saying that myself and a special crew have a sense of what’s on the horizon while the craven among whom I dwell do not is I think not exactly an example of philosophical modesty. I think this is worth taking into account because it’s something like this attitude--whatever the benignity of his Quaker style--that enables Miller to scoff at Abrams and that, Matt notwithstanding, gives credence to the claim that, yes, from the beginning Theory put itself forward as an all-or-nothing affair whose truth the wise would accept and the cowardly would resist. If Derrida backed away from that attitude, I’m glad to hear it, but in the American academy, I believe, it lingers.