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Friday, August 05, 2005

There Be Monsters; or, Rosa Parks: Not Psychotic

Posted by Sean McCann on 08/05/05 at 07:48 AM

I hope that title grabbed you and will persuade you to ruminate for a second over a dry question or two: was Jacques Derrida an apocalyptic thinker? And, if so, why should we care?

I would have thought the obvious answer to the first question was: yes!  I had my own spell of infatuation at the tail end of the high theory days, and my recollection is that Mark is right to say (as he does in his essay in TE) that, for many of us, a big part of the thrill was not just the fascination with what’s difficult, but the closely related sense that the text was an arcanum that would put our hands on the very cockles of history.  At the same time, even then some of it seemed a bit over the top.  I remember querying readers more expert or devoted than myself about the Derridean tic of referring to monstrous births and event horizons and receiving embarrassed shrugs or expressions of confusion in reply.

Even when I was infatuated, I always thought this was one of the signal weaknesses of the Derridean oeuvre, but the TE event has brought to my attention the possibility that my impression might just be off. Adam, who probably knows best, says, yeah, Derrida had that millennial thing in his early days, but he suggests that Derrida left it behind and that it was never really that important to the act anyway.  (Closer to Pete Best than to Duane Allman is the implication, I take it.) Gerald Graff doubts even that much.  Derrida rebuked the apocalyptic attitude strongly, he says.  Claiming to see one in his work is just carelessness with the facts.

On reflection, I’m not convinced.  First off, apocalyptic notes are sprinkled throughout Derrida’s early writing and, in varying form, they appear to return with moderate consistency.  (A quick, unscientific tour of the blogosphere suggests that the question is even a small matter of interpretation for some Derrideans.  There appear to be conflicting schemes of periodization out there: he was apocalyptic early and then become something different—“perverformative,” some claim; he was apocalyptic, then he wasn’t, then he was again, others say.) Second off, they seem pretty central to his view of things.  Third off, I think they turn out to have a rather lasting legacy in American Theory, where they continue to exercise what seems to me a basic and unfortunate influence.

Here’s the concluding paragraphs to the famous “Structure, Sign, and Play” essay, the critique of Levi-Strauss that made Derrida’s name at the epochal Johns Hopkins conference in ’66 and launched the post-structural invasion.* (I’ve already posted this in the thread following Adam’s comments, but here it is again.) The passage comes at the end of an analysis in which Derrida contends that Levi-Strauss resisted the implications of his own structuralist theory and instead demonstrated a misguided “nostalgia for origins”:

There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of freeplay. The one [i.e. that of Levi-Strauss at his weakest] that 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 [i.e., the repressed, good side of Levi-Strauss’s theory, discovered by Derrida], which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism . ..

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 . . . 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 . . . of which we are only glimpsing today the conception, the formation, 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.  (Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, 292-93)

By comparison to a lot of Derrida’s writing, the meaning of this passage seems relatively straightforward.  What’s more, that meaning seems rather directly prophetic.  Derrida’s distinctive understanding of language has brought him to a unique pass.  He stands amid a company of the sheepish, with whose timidity he can’t help but empathize.  At the same time, he (perhaps implicitly in an obstetric mode) has the wherewithal to perceive the dawning of a monstrous birth.

(As an aside, it is worth noting that there’s a cleverness to this passage that could easily trip one up.  SS&P criticizes Levi-Strauss for his “Rousseauistic” attitude [292] and elevates deconstruction’s awareness of the “free play” of the signifier—the insuppressible feature of language that undermines any hope of stable centers, origins, authority, what have you.  But, while there’s no doubt where his preferences lie, Derrida also clearly says that there’s no chance of choosing between these two stances.  They’re both inevitable, and we stand on a terrain inhabited by both.  Having made that point, however, Derrida then goes on to suggest that it’s the full acknowledgment of this conflicted situation that portends monstrous births.  “[W]e must first try to conceive of the common ground” of the “Rousseauistic” and deconstructive modes.  In the challenge or “question” posed by that conception (get it!) we receive a glimpse of the monstrous.  So, while you can’t really choose Derrida over Levi-Strauss, you can (by implicit contrast to Levi-Strauss) take full cognizance of the inevitability of each—in effect, that is, choose Derrida over Levi-Strauss.  Like the critique of Foucault, the essay is a masterpiece of one-upsmanship.)

Granted, you won’t find many statements quite so direct as this in much else in the Derrida canon.  It’s not necessarily the wisest course to declare yourself a prophet, even if it played well at Hopkins or was the thing to do in the structuralist set circa ’66.  Derrida might well have regretted the romantic enthusiasm of this passage and come to decide that it reflected a naiveté (like the one he claimed to see in Foucault’s Madness and Civilization) out of keeping with the strictures of his own thought.  I don’t know enough to say.  But there are other statements of similar attitudes.  Here, for example, is a passage from Of Grammatology.

The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger.  It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity.  For that future world and for that within it which will have put into question the values of sign, word, and writing, for that which guides our future anterior, there is as yet no exergue.  (Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivack 4-5)

In light of passages like these, I think it’s a fair question to ask whether, even if he did rebuke the grand (almost Zarathustian) apocalypticism of SS & P, it would have been possible for Derrida to get beyond what seems the basically apocalyptic framework to his theory.  Plenty of refinements and complications to that theory of course.  (It really is a dizzying experience, at least for me, to look again over Derrida’s work after long absence and to recognize the sheer candle power, the dazzling rhetorical display, the daunting erudition, as Scott might say, and the maddening, eelish ungraspability of so much of it.  It’s not that surprising that some of us were wowed.) But see if this doesn’t capture one, perhaps vastly oversimplified version of the major argument:

—The history of western metaphysics is a history of an effort, in the service of an inevitably doomed, but constantly re-erected illusion of presence, to exclude the fundamental, absolutely prior truth of writing—the truth, that is, that language is formal, conventional, iterable and thus the possession of no man. 

-- The truth is there is no presence.  Meaning is always shadowed by the inevitable meaninglessness built into language itself. Utterances are fated to escape the intentions of their speakers, etc. 

-- What’s more, the truth is that truth itself is a function of the gimcrack inventions (i.e., of standard language and western metaphysics: more or less the same thing) by which we conceal this reality from ourselves.  “Difference, the disappearance of any originary presence, is at once the condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility of truth.” (Dissemination, trans Barbara Johnson, 168)

-- Even to speak about language, or anything else, therefore is already to participate in a system that demands we obscure our awareness of language’s underlying reality, while it also inevitably dooms our efforts to the failures we must nevertheless seek to repress.

This is involuted.  (To be melodramatic, we might say that language is simultaneously demonic and angelic in the Derridean scheme—both the source of our illusions of meaning and the source of their bedevilment.  And that combination produces all sorts of fascinatingly intricate complications.) But in fact, the fundamental scheme isn’t that complex.  Indeed, the combination of intricacy with a relatively straightforward, high intensity theory may account for a good deal of Derrida’s popular success. 

The more obvious point for this discussion, however, is that the argument has its own, fundamentally apocalyptic, metaphysics:  1) There is an ultimate truth.  2) It is hidden ordinarily from those who shield their eyes--is in fact incompatible with the normal structures of experience.  3) Its revelation comes only in terrible moments of annihilating, or at the least disorienting, exposure. 

If I’m right to see things this way, Derrida might well have rebuked a naïve kind of apocalypticism, but he couldn’t have maintained his fundamental presuppositions without remaining apocalyptic nevertheless—that is, a philosopher basically oriented toward the revelation of otherworldly truths that are incompatible with and thus destructive to our current reality.

Graff cites as one of his prime exhibits Positions, an early book of interviews in which, as in the still earlier critique of Foucault, Derrida quite clearly says: look, there’s no leaping beyond history, you can’t just will your way past metaphysics, no horsemen are coming, and it doesn’t even make sense to try to divide matters up cleanly so that the illusion of presence falls on one side of a divide and absence on the other.  Such binary divisions are themselves the products of language and thus demonstrate their own inescapability, as well as their inevitable failure.  In point of fact, the demonic always inheres in the angelic and vice versa.  (Needless to say, Derrida wouldn’t put things quite this way, but I think it’s consistent with the argument.) To wit:

We know what always have been the practical (particularly political) effects of immediately jumping beyond oppositions, and of protests in the simple form of neither this nor that. . . .  [T]he hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself. (41-42, emphasis in original)

So, Derrida, says: get ahold of yourself; no leaping into the ether.  More particularly, before we can attend to the kind of monstrous births anticipated by “SS&P,” we have to engage in an “interval” of deconstructive analysis that will proceed by challenging our habit of accepting a condition in which we accept, say, the priority of speech over text, presence over absence, etc.  All this deconstructive analysis, however, will be prefatory to:

the irruptive emergence of a new ‘concept,’ a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime. (Positions 42)

My knowledge is severely limited, but I think that this kind of move recurs regularly in Derrida.  It’s already anticipated in the ninja treatment he gives Levi-Strauss.  First the denial of naïve apocalypticism.  Then the invocation of a sophisticated, tamped down version.  (In fact, if I remember right, this is pretty directly the story told by Derrida’s commentary on Kant’s essay on “the apocalyptic tone in recent philosophy,” which ends by invoking “an apocalypse without apocalypse, an apocalypse without vision, without truth, without revelation . . . beyond good and evil.") It’s why there are such frequent references throughout the oeuvre to highly charged terms like trembling, trace, rupture, haunting, scar, fracture, secret, and so on.  Each of those words, and many others like them, point to the thrilling divide between a this-worldly normality and an otherworldly revelation.  We’ll never get past that divide, of course.  But it’s at the point of trembling, the seam where the monstrous might appear, that all the excitement lies.

So, why should we care?  As a matter of intellectual fashion, Derrida is so over.  He has been for years now.  (Yes, the true believers hang on, and there are still people like Adam who take a sober interest in some of Derrida’s finer points, but deconstruction hasn’t been cutting edge since the DeMan debacle.) And, if I’m wrong and Adam’s right, the apocalypticism was over even before that. 

Well, I think we should care because, perhaps for understandable reasons, American intellectuals found Derrida’s subtle apocalypticism quite attractive and certain aspects of it, or analogs to it, remain more or less staple features of contemporary discourse in the literary academy.  I’ve run out steam, so I’m going to pause now and pick up this discussion in a subsequent post.  But, here’s a lame attempt at a cliffhanger. 

One place I think we see the Derridean apocalypse alive and well—mutated and grafted with other influences, yes, but still recognizably there--is in the writing of Judith Butler.  Butler’s own devotion to the theory leads her to devise an argument which takes her to a position that comes quite close to saying, in effect, Rosa Parks was psychotic.  I find this quite an unappealing view myself, but also an illuminating one. A theory that lead you to that position, or one even near it, is not a good theory. Butler would in all likelihood both have a defense of her view and an account of why my understanding of is wrong.  I think I can imagine how that defense would go and will try to explain in a follow-up why the argument remains misguided and of questionable coherence.  More to come. 

* Yes, I do know that poststructuralism is an American neologism and would make little sense in a French context.  It does serve a useful purpose on these shores, though.


Rushing in like a fool:

I have only a tenuous grasp on Derrida’s work, but I believe a good deal of this “apocalyptic” discourse is a function of Derrida’s Hegelianism-without-teleology.  Such a vision entails the idea that change is inevitable but neither rational nor progressive nor directed toward some ultimate end. 

In slightly different terms, the poet Myung Mi Kim has written about how change is monstrous precisely because if it is to be change, it has to be unexpected, a break with the past, not a smooth transition (or progression).  But in the absence of teleology (or sublation or dialectical resolution), we can only wait—quasi prophetically—for a future that looms on the horizon but which is entirely unknowable in the present.  I don’t think the term “other-worldly” is useful here, precisely because, in the absence of Absolute Spirit, which even itself is “this worldly” for Hegel, this newness is of this world.  (Then again, the Hebrew prophets’ visions were largely of this world too, which just goes to show how showing a people the future implicit in their present can be mistaken for supernatural vision.) My language of waiting implies that humans have no agency in bringing this future to be; I’m not sure that’s out of place in Derrida’s work.  Being spoken by language rather than articulating one’s own vision might mean waiting for the movement of language (or history or whatever) to do its business without “birthing” it oneself, so to speak.  Especially if the future is the return of the repressed of the past (as in trauma theory); if we can’t stop this return, I wonder if we can do anything to aid it along (trauma theory says yes, don’t know about Derrida’s response).  But such possible quietism is where I part ways with Derrida.

By on 08/05/05 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Your post deserves a lengthy response, Sean, but I’m going to try a short one for a change.  The question of Derrida’s apocalyptic promises still matters because many people on the left and the right still make the same central mistake.  Namely, they believe that politics and practice rest upon and are supported by metaphysics—and that a change in the latter is connected to changes in the former.  Where would our culture wars be without this error?

Parsimoniously, Peter

By on 08/05/05 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What exactly do you mean by apocalypsticism and why, if he is such a thinker, is this something to hold against him?  Why do you insist on calling Derrida a theorist when he is a philosopher situated in an established philosophical tradition that deals, a great deal, with religious questions?  Derrida may be “over” in terms of literature, but within philosophy programs that take ‘European’ philosophy seriously he is still very important.  This silly, silly statement is like saying, “Hegel is so over.  I mean, come on, we have totally all moved on to Gramsci.” What does that even mean to say that something is ‘so over’?

By on 08/05/05 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought I said what I meant pretty clearly, Anthony: that Derrida is “a philosopher basically oriented toward the revelation of otherworldly truths that are incompatible with and thus destructive to our current reality.”

If that definition of apocalypticism is any good, there’s at least 2 or 3 questions you could have about that claim: is it accurate?  if so, is it, as you ask, anything to hold against Derrida?

I’ve tried to say why, based on my limited experience, I think it’s reasonable to say, yes, Derrida is apocalyptic.  But I don’t doubt that a case could be made that I’m wrong.

As to why this is anything to hold against Derrida.  Well, as I mentioned, this is something I expect to talk about more next week.  Some of the reasons to object are pretty obvious and presumably explain why neither Adam nor Graff are eager to see Derrida defined this way.  Others might deserve more consideration.  Suffice it to say for now that Luther’s description of the views of Myung Mi Kim get at some of them quite well, as does Peter’s reference to the overestimation of metaphysics. 

Yes, the reference to Derrida being over was silly.  Purposely.  Sorry to offend your sense of decorum. Obviously, I wouldn’t be talking about Derrida at such length if I didn’t think his ideas were still prominent and worth contending with.

By on 08/05/05 at 10:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What does that even mean to say that something is ‘so over’?

It’s called a joke.

By on 08/05/05 at 10:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why are you people intent on making me think on a Friday night?  Do you hate me?  You must.  So I won’t spare the rod: Anthony, I think Sean’s trying to discredit Derrida because of the irresponsible and anti-intellectual adoption of grossly oversimplified bastardizations of his theories by “third-wave” of post-structuralist literary scholars--think ‘80s and ‘90s--rankles like you wouldn’t believe.  (If I’m putting intentions behind your pen, Sean, feel free to whale away.) By which I mean: I wonder why you’d critique Derrida’s contributions to the philosophical tradition when you’re a literary scholar.  And by that I mean: I’ve come to conclusion lately that interdisciplinarity has led me to draw conclusions about the work of scholars outside my field that I lack the requisite skills and background to draw legitimately, and am curious why you’ve decided to take Derrida the philosopher on.  Honest comments/questions all, I swear. 

That said, I think Anthony’s justifiably upset because you’re discussing Derrida’s influence on literary criticism without recognizing that in the ongoing war between the analytic and Continental tradition, Derrida’s stature’s still contested.  That said, I think Sean’s correct in one important-to-a-literary-scholar-respect: the time when literary scholars could endlessly abuse the rigor of Derridian and/or deconstructive thought has passed; and given that Derrida unwittingly and unintentionally authorized an irresponsible interpretive ethos utterly foreign to the attentive and sophisticated practices of, well, Derrida himself, I think that’s a good thing for everyone.  No longer will literary critics have to slog through dreadful essays about the undecidability of the text, and no longer will serious students of Derrida’s philosophy have to concern themselves with literary-critics-cum-faux-philosophers popularizing anti-foundationalist principles which, while anti-foundational, bear no relation to Derrida’s actual critique of foundationalism.

(While previewing this, I noticed Sean’d already replied that he is, in fact, taking Derrida the philosopher on.  Given my week of waffling about what I can and can’t speak to with authority, I’m even more interested now in hearing why he’s doing so.  Whale away, Sean, whale away!)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/05/05 at 10:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I thought I said what I meant pretty clearly, Anthony: that Derrida is ‘a philosopher basically oriented toward the revelation of otherworldly truths that are incompatible with and thus destructive to our current reality.’”

It wasn’t clear that this was your defition of apocalypticism.  Now that I know what you mean I’m going to have to say that Derrida is not an apocalyptic thinker and that I’m not sure how this is apocalyptic.  Yes, Derrida does think there are truths that are buried beneath what we normally claim as truths, but I don’t think you can claim these are “otherworldly”.  In fact, next to most of his texts dealing with true apocalyptic ideas he often makes reference to his common statement that “I carry a secret and it is that there is no secret.” Knowledge isn’t just for the few faithful (which is more akin to Badiou than Derrida).  As to this danger you see behind his thought, well, I think that’s a bit over the top.

By on 08/05/05 at 11:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kermode’s book dates from almost the same time as the Hopkins conference.

By Jonathan on 08/06/05 at 12:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, here’s the paragraph from which that quote was taken:

If I’m right to see things this way, Derrida might well have rebuked a naïve kind of apocalypticism, but he couldn’t have maintained his fundamental presuppositions without remaining apocalyptic nevertheless—that is, a philosopher basically oriented toward the revelation of otherworldly truths that are incompatible with and thus destructive to our current reality.

There you have it: term, definition.  What’s unclear about that? 

It may be, of course, that I’m wrong about Derrida and wrong about apocalypticism.  It’s true, I’m not a philosopher and don’t even play one on TV. So, nod to Scott, I may be professionally underequipped for this conversation. But, do me the honor of considering the evidence I’ve proposed.  When Derrida refers to “that future world” which “breaks absolutely with constitued normality,” why is that not a reference to a world other than the one we now inhabit and not knowable on its terms?  It is, of course, standard to philosophy, science, etc. to believe that there are “truths . . . buried beneath what we normally claim as truths.” What’s not standard is to believe that they are inassimilable to the world we inhabit or to our means of understanding it and can only be grasped therefore via revelation.  Is it your case that this is not so for Derrida?  That when he appears to speak in this way he doesn’t mean it?  That he did once speak in this way and did mean it, but changed his mind? 

You might also consider in this context that saying, “I carry a secret and it is that there is no secret” is not the same thing as saying, “there is no secret"--just as saying, I anticipate “an apocalypse without apocalypse” is not the same thing as saying, I do not anticipate an apocalypse.

By on 08/06/05 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

a philosopher basically oriented toward the revelation of otherworldly truths that are incompatible with and thus destructive to our current reality.

I have long thought this, though without being able to formulate it as clearly.  Today (August 6) is Hiroshima Day, and I think it’s appropriate to revisit Derrida’s claim, in the “No Apocalypse, Not Now” essay, that nuclear warfare is a “fabulously textual” phenomenon:  “The terrifying reality of the nuclear conflict can only be the signified referent, never the real referent (present or past) of a discourse or a text”.  He goes on to say that nuclear apocalypse has never happened, and indeed never can happen.  The intention may be different, but the language (and logic) is too much like the rhetoric one finds in discourses like Holocaust denial for my comfort.

By on 08/06/05 at 04:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, now Derrida is a essentially a Holocaust denial because Laura Carroll doesn’t understand the arguement being made in “No Apocalypse, Not Now”.  Post-Theory is almost as fun as what came before!

The nuclear conflict can only be the signified referent because if it were to happen there would no longer be writing.  An event, which happens, is decided through discourse in a community (common language and all that) and so if a nuclear apocalypse between two superpowers were to occur there would be no event because there would be no life.  He isn’t making a claim about the thing-in-itself, but about experience.  Maybe the literature programs that studied Derrida should have started with Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations first.  I think a lot of these misunderstandings come from misunderstanding phenomenology first and foremost.


I’m getting ready to leave with my family and then I work 8 hours so I don’t have time to do a ‘detailed’ response (which I think is usually a mistake in the online format anyway).  You said, “What’s not standard is to believe that they are inassimilable to the world we inhabit or to our means of understanding it and can only be grasped therefore via revelation.” I don’t know what the hell you mean by ‘standard’ since you aren’t referring to a philosophical tradition and each different tradition has their own ‘standards’, but it is very ‘standard’ to ‘believe’ that there are truths that can only be grapsed via ‘revelation’.  Nietzsche made this argument about scientific fact.  Since truths are human creations they change as our experience and understanding of the world change.  What Derrida is doing here is not all that different, though it is different, than Kuhn since he’s basically repeating Husserl.  In phenomenology the truth of something only reveals itself (yes, Husserl uses revelation too) through experience.  So when we come to see something in a new way it can be tramautic and even apocalyptic to some degree (though not in your defintion of otherworldly). 

Sorry for the spelling mistakes.

By on 08/06/05 at 08:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, what happened in Japan in August 1945?  To say to the thousands of survivors of nuclear warfare who are still living that “if it were to happen there would no longer be writing” is to shit upon their testimony and trivialise their terrible suffering.

By on 08/06/05 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, there’s no more mystery to what I meant by standard than to what I meant by apocalyptic.  My definition of the standard (the usual, the typical, etc.) may be arguable, but it’s not unclear.

I think, in fact, what Derrida’s doing is quite unlike what Kuhn does, despite some not especially significant ground of overlap.  Kuhn saw that paradigm change within the larger context of scientific investigation.  He didn’t, to my knowledge, believe that paradigm change was inconsistent with science itself--or, as Derrida suggests, with something much more encompassing.  Paradigm shifts require changes in basic presuppositions about an area of inquiry, yes.  But changing those presuppositions does not require an abandonment of, say, scientific technique or scientific institutions.  Nor does it demand a shattering alteration of the larger framework of experience--i.e., as Derrida says something that breaks absolutely with constituted normality. 

signified referent vs. real referent?  If you have time, I’d be interested to hear how this is a meaningful distinction.

By on 08/06/05 at 10:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Except that the “apocalyptism without apocalypse” (to coin a truly awful phrase) that Sean is objecting to in Derrida’s thought isn’t Husserlian, right?  It’s Heideggerian.  I.e., to be reductive, Derrida believes that there’s this thing called the “metaphysics of presence” that extends from Plato to the present day.  Derrida believes that you cannot go beyond this metaphysics of presence, but must remain at its border as it were, deconstructing various philosophies and modes of thought for the trace of the other that lies buried within them but can never be articulated without falling back into the metaphysics of presence.  This perspective allows him to a) criticize writers who naively affirm the metaphysics of presence; and b) criticize writers who think they’ve gone beyond it.

I can only really speak of the influence of Derrida on literary studies, and it’s obviously been important.  As some other commenter noted a while back, Derrida has seeped into the discipline’s groundwater, and he’s helped refine a certain kind of reading - a kind of reading that pays attention to how a writer’s tropes interfere with her stated intentions, or that pays attention to certain common logical moves that go astray.

However, this central notion of the “metaphysics of presence” strikes me as pure bollocks.  What on earth is this underlying continuity to all of Western thought?  Is it hard-wired into the human brain?  Is it cultural?  Derrida is too canny to say, and even to ask these questions is supposedly vulgar in the context of his thought.

By on 08/06/05 at 10:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To follow Anthony’s last response:

Historians such as La Capra and Ankersmit makes very similar points without possibly being misunderstood as apocalyptic.  (Which is to say, I think Derrida plays with apocalptic language, only to deflate it.) For Ankersmit, historical *experience* is frequently that of rupture, of unassimilatable change.  He writes that in these cases, historical subjects become what they are no longer; I am no longer something in a positive way, instead I am that which I once was. 

What ties Ankersmit to Derrida is, as Anthony wrote, an emphasis on experience.  Ankersmit, after writing two major works on the practice of historiography, completed his trilogy by turning to history as *experienced* by observers and historians—in what Hegel, in the introduction to his *Philosophy of History*, called “original history,” or historians “whose descriptions are for the most part limited to deeds, events, and states of society, which they had before their eyes, and whose spirit they shared” (1). 

These events are experienced as revelations, though Ankersmit doesn’t use that term.  Even when the historian is an active agent in the events—such as in the case of Guicciardini (Ankersmit 356-57)—what is experienced as rupture are the totally unforeseen consequences of one’s actions.

I’m still bothered by the fact that often Derrida portrays agents as passively sitting in front of “experience” like a 50s family before the Tube. 

Ankersmit, F.R.  *Sublime Historical Experience*.  Stanforn: Stanford U P, 2005.

Hegel, G.W.F. *The Philosophy of History*.  TransJ. Sibree.  Mineola, NY: Dover Pub, 1956.

By on 08/06/05 at 10:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura: “Anthony, what happened in Japan in August 1945?  To say to the thousands of survivors of nuclear warfare who are still living that “if it were to happen there would no longer be writing” is to shit upon their testimony and trivialise their terrible suffering.”

I don’t have access to this particular essay by Derrida (I have no Project Muse access to Diacritics), but it appears from what Anthony says that he’s refering to a full-out nuclear exchange between superpowers that would destroy all life.  I don’t know if it’s really likely that even a full nuclear exchange between the US and USSR would have destroyed quite all human life, but Derrida can’t be expected to be an expert in that area.  While one might see this as evidence of interest in apocalypticism, I don’t see how it trivializes Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  That’s very much like the standard blog-argument that if someone chooses not to write about X, they don’t care about X.

Derrida’s analysis does appear to implicitly assert both an atheistic position and one in which alien intelligent species will never reach Earth and study the remains, however, because otherwise there’d be entities left to talk about the event.

By on 08/06/05 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, yes, Luther, Derrida does deflate apocalyptic language, but doesn’t to my knowledge actually dismiss it (contending, of course, that it could never actually be dismissed).  The whole point of my post is that he deflates it in the course of making a non-naive (i.e., clever) apocalypticism central to his thinking.

I’ve never read Ankersmit, so this may all be wrong.  But what you say about him seems implausible to me.

First off, can it really be true that historical experience is “frequently” of rupture?  Isn’t it in the nature of rupture that it can’t be a commonplace experience?

More importantly, I’m not sure why, even if people ordinarily do experience historical (or personal) events as ruptures that tells us very much.  It’s true that to participants events like, oh, the French Revolution could seem like unpredictable eruptions that utterly transformed the world.  (It’s also true that people say things like, on day x my life was changed forever.  This kind of stuff is the staple of pop journalism, and the fact that people can have numerous such events in their lives doesn’t seem to effect the basic narrative at all--perhaps because it is such an easily reproduced and dramatic narrative.)

But consider any momentous historical event in retrospect and it’s also clear that from a later vantage point it’s possible to see countless ways in which something that seemed unanticipatable at the time was evidently the outcome of various causal factors that in retrospect can be traced clearly. In other words, it doesn’t actually break utterly with constituted normality or demand that we abandon our ordinary means of understanding.

So what does this tell us?  Only that people have an experience of the events that affect them directly that differs from the way such events will be understood by non-participants.  That doesn’t tell us anything except that understanding is limited and affected by point-of-view and context. 

This seems to me an interesting point for consideration in the writing of history.  (If you’re interested in in understanding the way historical actors think, you need to make some effort to remember what they couldn’t possibly know.) But apart from that, not especially important. I don’t see much of a connection to Derrida’s much larger point, which I believe Stephen describes well.

Except, well, there is a much vaguer connction that probably has to do with the kind of reception history that Scott and Stephen emphasize.  One way that Derrida has been used, or one already existing attitude he’s been taken to reinforce, concerns the futility of explanation, understanding, and planning.  (Since in some places, Derrida will call all existing forms of knowledge “ideology” and will cast deconstruction as fundamentally lethal to them, I think it’s unlikely that this is solely a matter of vulgar misreading by American audiences.) As I’ll attempt to argue in my follow-up post, to the extent there are political implications to this view, they’re libertarian--and also, as Scott suggests in his Theory Friday post, actually anti-intellectual. None of these points are unprecedented, but since there are still some people who believe strongly otherwise, it’s still worth making hte case.

By on 08/06/05 at 09:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First of all:

“signified referent vs. real referent?  If you have time, I’d be interested to hear how this is a meaningful distinction."

Because total nuclear annihilation can never be a “real referent” because said event (how do you x out in html?) would bring reference itself to an end. Simply can’t be a real referent - only at second layer of remove…

Sean, please let’s go back to yr point, that everyone’s missed, about Butler. If I get what you’re saying, and I might not, you’re saying that in Butler’s eyes: Rosa Parks = liberal gradualism = non-apocalyptic politics = psychotic. Or something like that? Because if so I’d say you have Butler back-asswards. She’s a liberal gradualist underneath, albeit an extremely sophisticated one…

And so is Derrida, perhaps… But lets start with Butler… Can you expand a bit the last paragraph of the OP?

By CR on 08/06/05 at 11:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR--would an example of a “real referent”, then, be, instead of saying or writing “apple”, holding up an apple?  “I sure do like eating [holds up apple]”?

By ben wolfson on 08/07/05 at 12:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, the “frequently” in my phrase “historical *experience* is frequently that of rupture” is sloppy writing on my part.  I mean that many of the major events of history are experienced as rupture.  Ankersmit is quite clear in what defines rupture for historical subjects: the experience of taking on as one’s identity the fact that after the event, one *is* what one is no longer.  Thus, he distinguishes between two types of traumatic historical experience: in the first, the trauma is incorporated as part of the self narrative (what Freud calls working through); in the second, the event leaves the self unable to either take on a new identity or abandon one’s past identity.  The 18th century Scots pushed off land by enclosures didn’t suddenly become different people; they often became what they no longer could be.  Ankersmit does argue, in fact, that for many victims of the Holocaust, the event did *not* traumatize in the second sense above: by tying it to a longer tradition of Jewish suffering and overcoming suffering, these subjects managed to incorporate the event into narratives of individual and cultural identity. 

But your point, Sean, that this is simply separate from some objective, Monday-morning-quarterback view of history is not quite as simple as it seems.  First off, we often receive our original accounts of history from the very subjects who are affected by it.  Secondly, and more importantly, our “cultural memory”—the informal passing down of history in family, club, party, ethnicity, what-have-you—is often defined by the breakdown in individual and collective identity Ankersmit locates in certain historical events.  But to set up some simple contrast between history-as-perceived and history-as-it-really-was doesn’t quite get at the complexity of the situation.  The historian who finds the “hidden continuities” behind events seen in their time as ruptures is himself a subject experiencing history and responding to the concerns of his time—the desire for hidden continuity could be read as an attempt to establish a clear narrative where none actually was.  And these “hidden continuties” can seem more like religious “revelations” than Derrida’s sublime attitude toward the future.

Also, and this is where Derrida really comes in, the central point here goes back to Hegel: reason in history only works backwards, the Owl of Minerva, and so on.  To those of us who can’t achieve a transcendental position outside of history, major historical change—to be even identified as change and not gradual social adjustment—is experienced as unknowable, as indeterminate.  The question then is whether the knowledge we can have of history in retrospect is transcendental or rather fictive/narrative (and hence ideology).

Simple example: in viewing the roots of American democracy as extending to the Iroquois Confederation, are we revealing the hidden historical continuities at work, or are we suggesting that the lives of Native Americans live on in spirit in our government, and so implying that the Noble Savage didn’t die in vain?

By on 08/07/05 at 12:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, no Ben… You’re headed in the wrong direction…

Derrida’s talking about an event, described in language, that would bring an end to language itself…

Can’t establish real referentiality for “the non-existence of the universe,” say…

At issue is the possibility of the apple and the word “apple” coexisting… Of human speech and nuclear annihilation…

By CR on 08/07/05 at 01:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment


See Rich’s comment and then read my sarcastic response if you still want to.

What happened in Japan was two war crimes where two atomic bombs were dropped on two civilian cities.  It was not nuclear apocalypse.  To suggest it was is just silly.  Further, to suggest that the two bombs dropped in Japan are part of Derrida’s discussion of nuclear war is to misunderstand quite significantly his central arguement.

“Anthony, there’s no more mystery to what I meant by standard than to what I meant by apocalyptic.  My definition of the standard (the usual, the typical, etc.) may be arguable, but it’s not unclear.”

Sure, whatever.  My point was that you can’t make an arguement about the standard anything without explaining where that standard is coming from, not that your definition was unclear.

“I think, in fact, what Derrida’s doing is quite unlike what Kuhn does, despite some not especially significant ground of overlap.”

I’ll concede this point since I’m no expert on Kuhn and don’t care to have such a discussion.  Now, if I may suggest that your problem isn’t with Derrida so much that it’s with phenomenology.

“signified referent vs. real referent?  If you have time, I’d be interested to hear how this is a meaningful distinction.”

Are you serious?  Read the essay, I think it’s at least as clear as your definition of apocalyptic.


I know most people in literature would disagree with me, but as for myself and those who taught me I’d say the influence of Heidegger on Derrida is largely overblown.  Further, the arguement that there is a metaphysics of presence that runs throughout western thought is just his take on a common theme.  Horkheimer and Adorno simply had reason, Heidegger had a werid rape arguement where the world presents itself as an object to be used and so we must learn to resit the slut that it is, Husserl had the idea that it was philosophy seperated from experience, Arendt that it was ends-thinking (of course, I’m doing this all in teh spirit of reduction you started above).  Derrida’s arguement concerning the metaphyics of presence is better understand, to my mind at least, as an argument against binary thinking that only makes something positive in being by excluding some other, in this case absence.

Anyway, I’m glad people are talking about this stuff at least.  While I’m sort of a stuck up philosopher type, I’m glad that literature programs gave Derrida a somewhat hospitable home here in the States even if the insuing war over what he meant makes it hard for people to take non-polemical positions on his work.  For myself, while I greatly respect Derrida I find Deleuze’s work to be more interesting and helpful.  I don’t think he’s often read in literature programs though (and if he is I could see it going badly due to his style).

By on 08/07/05 at 01:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Anthony, I’m serious, precisely because CR’s generous explanation points to what I believe is simply a misleading conflation in Derrida’s rhetoric.  It is intrinsic to reference that it involve signification, so it’s simply incoherent to refer to a distinction between “real” and “signified” referents.  What Derrida is playing on here, of course, is the intuition that there is something unreal about signification and that it can not apprehend realities.  But that is a false implication on his own terms since it implies that there could be reference apart from signification.

CR explains the point well, but it doesn’t make much sense.  It is true that, if there were somehow to be a complete destruction of humanity, there would be no one left to refer to it.  This seems to me a true, but pretty trivial point.  It would not mean, of course, that the destruction of humanity hadn’t occured. 

But, of course, there’s no reason that the concept of nuclear apocalypse cannot be referred to, and there’s nothing unreal about referring to concepts or hypotheticals.  What Derrida is saying here appears to be that we won’t be able to describe the end of the world after it’s happened.  Yes.  So what?

CR, that’s not actually my point about Butler, though I will certainly agree with you that the political implications of Butler’s ideas are not much distinct from a particular form of liberal gradualism.  I promise to explain what I do mean in a follow-up post soon to come. 

LB: these “hidden continuties” can seem more like religious “revelations” than Derrida’s sublime attitude toward the future" Well, they can--when the history is bad history.  This is why we make reference to argument and evidence.  One feature of Derrida’s thinking that makes it distinct from history as, yes, it is usually practiced, is that what is cast as rupture or monstrosity will obviate the possibility of argument and evidence.  I’m not precisely sure what you mean when you say: “the question then is whether the knowledge we can have of history in retrospect is transcendental or rather fictive/narrative (and hence ideology),” but it seems to me a false alternative of a sort that is quite prevalent in both popular discourse (see the Bush administration) and much rhetoric in the humanities--the choice, that is, between absolute certainty and pure relativity.  This is a naive and false alternative. 

There is nothing about the assumption that people who experience events directly will understand them differently from people who do not, btw, that requires simplicity or reductiveness or arrogance.

By on 08/07/05 at 10:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment


While Derrida’s first book, Speech and Phenomena, is about Husserl, it is in essence a Heideggerian critique of Husserl.  I.e., Derrida’s point is to argue that whereas Husserl wants to move beyond the metaphysical tradition in order to found phenomenology as the philosophy of sense experience, he is in fact cleaving very closely to that tradition.  Derrida is trying to get at a central problematic that he think shapes the entire Western philosphical tradition (and he is deliberately fuzzy about what is and is not part of that tradition, so that sometimes the metaphysics of presence is just a philosophical problem, sometimes he can use it to try to grapple with quotidian political problems).  Of course, Derrida is closest to the later Heidegger, so what matters is not the question of Being but rather some unnameable paradox prior to it, etc.

This Heideggerian influence, in my view, is responsible for the weak historicism of Derrida’s work.  I.e., in a typical book, Derrida can hop around between readings of, say, Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, and Carl Schmitt.  Why?  Because for Derrida, the same paradoxes get repeated again and again within the philosophical tradition, and the specific historical differences don’t really matter all that much.  This is a claim, of course, that is in essence unprovable.  So unlike Heidegger, Derrida merely hints at the underlying continuity and tries to convince the reader that it exists by piling on more and more readings.

I’m aware, of course, that this weak historicism is not unique to Derrida and Heidegger but also extends to Adorno and Horkheimer, Arendt, etc.  It does seem to be a peculiar tick of continental philosophy.  Anglo-American philosophy doesn’t really share it, right?  I don’t know enough about the Anglo-American tradition to tell.

By on 08/07/05 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I’m convinced that you just don’t buy into the philosophy behind Derrida and that even if I saw evidence that you knew anything about that tradition you would reject it due to prior commitments.  For instance when you say, “What Derrida is playing on here, of course, is the intuition that there is something unreal about signification and that it can not apprehend realities”, you are just wrong.  Signification is true in so far as it is experience (phenomenology again) and questions about the realness of reality just aren’t important to Derrida.  You’re trying to turn him into Betrand Russell or any number of other Anglo-American philosophers who have trouble deciding if we can know that a table is real or not.  That’s not at work in Derrida.  Again, his arguement about a nuclear apocalypse not being able to happen has nothing to do with the ‘objective reality’ or whatever conditions you are trying to place on his thought.  As to whether or not his point is trival, well, that is really a matter of opinion.  It should be acknowleded that this is one relatively short essay among hundreds of others, futher that it was an essay wrote for a public talk, and that, though I always liked it, it may not be the strongest work ever produced.

By on 08/07/05 at 11:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Sorry I was unable to join this thread before it became obnoxiously long.  I have read basically all the posts before Anthony’s of 10:14 AM (except for ones that started, “I don’t know anything about Derrida, but I have these really strong opinions and disagreements with him"). 

It is important, as Anthony points out, to understand that Derrida is still doing phenomenology, throughout.  (In point of fact, in a kind of fortuitous symmetry, his last published work (Rogues) included an extensive discussion of Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences..., so he kind of begins and ends with Husserl.) That is, the point is not to describe some thing out there, such as the frequently used example of a table, but rather the structure of human experience. 

There are certain things that we never experience as such, like the future, or justice, or gift, or death, or any number of other reference points of his later works.  And some of the ways in which Derrida talks about these things are “apocalyptic,” but in a very particular way—an “already/not-yet” type of way that is reminiscent of a certain understanding of Christianity.  Thus, we kind of already have an idea of what justice is.  We experience certain laws as being a betrayal of justice, even though at the same time we recognize that there is no justice “as such,” without the law. 

So justice always remains future or to-come, never appears as such—yet does have real effects as a disruptive force (as in the innumberable instances of a “demand for justice” that causes a major shift in society).  But we never arrive at justice, or justice never arrives at us, as we can tell from just looking at history—the civil rights movement undoubtedly had justice on its side and achieved justice in a certain way, but it didn’t “finally solve the problem.” And for Derrida, that’s crucial—because human life “is” this irreducible contradiction between what aspires to presence/finality (law) and the disruptive force of the future (justice).  Or there are other dualities: economy/gift, whatever.

So Derrida doesn’t want the final consummation to come, because that would mean the end of humanity “as such” (although it’s not much of an “as such,” since it’s a structure of irreducible contradiction).  In fact, he backs away from certain types of messianism, like that of Benjamin, that seem to him to desire The End a little too earnestly (in the same way, after Writing and Difference, he distances himself from Bataille in a major way). 

This is part of why I said that Derrida is a conservative thinker—and, contra John Holbo’s constant (and, to me, absolutely infuriating) declamations that Derrida et al. are all a bunch of anti-Enlightenment Romantics, he remains very much an Enlightenment philosopher.  It’s a new level of complexification of the Enlightenment project, but new levels of complexification are kind of what’s to be expected. 

Yes, absolutely—there are aspects to his earlier writing that are misleading (which, based on his own theory, is to be expected), and yes, absolutely, some people took that and ran with it and basically stopped reading Derrida for any future clarifications (your very post is a testimony to this—there is a “canonical” Derrida, basically the two groups of three books that he did early in his career, and then he apparently retired).  I don’t know what to do about this pernicious influence, but I personally don’t have much investment in trying to undo it, aside from my personal interest in trying to dissociate Derrida from some of the more ridiculous lit-crit stuff so that people in theology (i.e., my actual discipline) will not think that Derrida is some bomb-throwing wacko who wants to eat our children. 

By the way, if you want a detailed account of the argument I’m recasting here, you could try Derrida’s “Force of Law,” in Acts of Religion.  I have also submitted an essay on the topic to Postmodern Culture, but I don’t know if or when it would ever be published (I can e-mail you the essay if you’re interested, with the usual strictures on citation, redistribution, etc.).  I am not going to attempt to do a complete scholarly essay in the comments to your post, however—and that means I’m not going to drag out “Force of Law” and back up what I say with quotes.  Just going to be upfront about that.

By Adam Kotsko on 08/07/05 at 12:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Anthony, it’s true.  I don’t buy into Derrida or perhaps the philosophy behind him.  While I can see why people find Heidegger compelling, for instance, the little that I know of him makes me believe that he’s concerned with a set of non-problems.  (My, admittedly limited, although not minimal reading of Derrida makes me believe that Stephen is correct to think that Heidegger was quite important to him.)

But the fact that I don’t buy Derrida doesn’t mean that I can’t be convinced that my views are wrong.  Having presented some evidence for them, though, I’d like to see arguments as to why they’re wrong.  So far your contribution to this conversation has been almost entirely snark. Check out Adam’s post for a lesson in how to argue with someone who doesn’t share your convictions.

I’m relieved that questions about the realness of reality don’t matter to Derrida.  I’m indifferent to them myself and haven’t the slightest interest in seeing him become Bertrand Russell.  My question was why a distinction between a signified referent and a real referent was not an incoherent one.  I still haven’t seen an explanation for that. 

Quite probably it is due to my ignorance of phenomenology, but I’m unable to understand what it means to say “signification is true in so far as it is experience.” Does this mean that there can’t be signification without agents to send or receive messages?  No argument from me about that.  Does it mean that the truth of any particular utterance is dependent on experience?  That can’t be.  It’s easy to think of any number of hypothetical utterances whose truth is not at all dependent on experience. 

I was under the impression that philosophers did not regard the question of whether a point is trivial or not as a matter of opinion.  I’d think the natural recourse to a charge of triviality would be some effort to explain why that’s not the case.

By on 08/07/05 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, thanks for the very generous reply.  I’m glad you agree that there is a respect in which it makes sense to describe Derrida as apocalyptic.  It seems to me that our understandings of what that means are in fact quite similar—although you are far more precise than I am and our estimation of the value of that apocalypticism is quite different. 

Your claim that for Derrida “human life ‘is’ this irreducible contradiction between what aspires to presence/finality (law) and the disruptive force of the future (justice)” captures, in fact, much of what I dislike about Derrida—and more particularly about his influence.  (It’s true, as Scott, suggests that I really am far more interested in what Derrida’s readers have come up with than I am with his no doubt far more nuanced work—though I do also believe that it’s not simply that he was vulgarized or misread.  There was good reason in those canonical works for reading him as he has been read in the U.S.)

No question that we don’t experience, say, justice as such.  Also, no question that there’s a tension between justice and law.  The way you put things here, though, seems to me doubtful and potentially more melodramatic than necessary. 

For one thing, is it the case that law aspires to finality or presence?  If you take the ordinary operations of the legal system in a democratic society for an example, I think the obvious answer would be no.  There are many aspirations for the law held by many different people, to very few of whom finality is in the least bit important. The most prevalent assumption is probably that law is an inherently unfinished, endlessly revisable, multifarious, and not especially coherent system of social regulation that is manifestly not the same thing as justice, but which can’t operate without some concern for it.  I can’t think of anyone who actually believes that law is coterminous with justice and doubt even that many think it can or should be. 

Likewise, is it the case that, because we can’t experience justice as such, it amounts therefore to the “disruptive force of the future”?  I don’t think so.  There are lots of ways that people appeal to justice against law.  Sometimes, as in Hegel, they invoke custom.  Sometimes they invoke religion.  Quite frequently, they appeal to one aspect of law, or one example of its use, against another.  The Civil Rights movement would be a good example of a situation where all of these were called upon to indict the system of Jim Crow.  In that case, prophetic religion was very important, but it was also the case that people could sign on to the movment by appealing, say, to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  In fact, there was one strand of Civil Rights rhetoric that argued that Jim Crow was unconstitutional and demanded the enforcement of federal and constitutional law against it.  Here, an appeal to justice did not require reference to anything outside the frame of understanding or the law. 

To put this all in banal terms.  Is it the law’s aspiration to finality that makes it not perfectly just and thus problematic.  I don’t think so.

It’s true by the way that my reading of Derrida stopped after the major early works.  But Grammatology, Dissemination, Margins, Writing and Difference—those seem like pretty major works. It can’t solely be the fault of bad readers if they take major works to be good accounts of what a writer believes. I will make an effort, though, to read “Force of Law,” and would be very interested to see your essay.

By on 08/07/05 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I’d also recommend James Berger’s *After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse* for a cogent exploration of Derrida’s apocalyptic strain.  A quotation:

“Derrida’s apocalyptic language [in “Differance"] is peculiar in that it suggests an apocalypse without an event.  Differance is an ongoing apocalypse, a continual revelatory destruction built into the structure of language” (112).

“That which apocalyptically explodes every structure emerges from within the structure.  Ther eis no need for, no possibility of, any external traumatic event.  The sructure and its deconstruction both are effects of the same non-origin, non-process of differance” (113).

“Derrida’s argument [levels] historical process to a universal process in which each particular instance is fundamentally the same as every other; the textualization of the most trivial event is the same as that of the most overwhelming.  What destablizes and restructures is always differance, not the ‘events’ or ‘histories’ that are its traces” (113).

[Dominic La Capra draws the useful distinction between structural trauma and historical trauma; I think that distinction is lost in Derrida, as Berger points out above.  The apocalypse, then, for Derrida arises out of any structure itself.  It doesn’t confront us from outside (as in historical trauma) but is the result of the same significatory process that gave rise to the structure in the first place.  Structure and collapse, history and apocalypse, all have differance as their condition of possibility.  So, as Berger later argues, for Derrida, all apocalypse is always already post-apocalypse.  I’m not endorsing any of this; just thought it would provide food for thought.]

By on 08/07/05 at 10:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Well certainly, six densely allusive works by any one thinker is probably a lot to ask in any case.  I’m going to try to keep this response brief, but I do have two points to make:

1. Yes, the critique of Derrida (as presented by me) that you level is certainly a possible critique.  There can be a certain pathos to these ethical corners that Derrida paints himself into—and in fact, in the Derrida session at this year’s APA, there was a good discussion of that very problem.  For now I’m going to forego defending Derrida from all of the more detailed charges you bring, since you have said you’ll likely read “Force of Law,” and it’s probably best to let him defend himself (or fail to).

2.  In retrospect, I think that Derrida’s early works sounded more radical than they in fact were.  As I said, yes, there are things in there that justify the lit-crit reception of Derrida, but insofar as you are arguing in your post that Derrida is hoping for the coming Kingdom or some such, I don’t think he’s that kind of apocalyptic thinker.  (Although—showing my cards!—I do think that some relation to something like an apocalyptic horizon is necessary to any really serious thought.) It’s a kind of immanent apocalypse, happening all the time, causing the world we know to limp along rather than function smoothly—the inherent obstacle that only ever allows us to “get by.” Derrida can couch that kind of thing in overly melodramatic terms at times, I’m sure, but that’s more a stylistic issue than anything. 

But this idea that an event is coming that’s going to change everything once and for all—no, Derrida’s not about that.  I don’t think he was really about that even in the early works, though it’s been a while since I spent a lot of time with the Early Canonical Derrida.  This is not something that can be solved by the quotation method, either, because I think that even in the early stuff, he’s working out structures like what I was laying out with law/justice—so the supposedly apocalyptic parts are always happening in the context of the “stable” parts, and that’s a matter of the rhythm and flow of an entire essay, at the very least. 

(I’ll send you the essay.)

By Adam Kotsko on 08/07/05 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Adam.  About this:

insofar as you are arguing in your post that Derrida is hoping for the coming Kingdom or some such, I don’t think he’s that kind of apocalyptic thinker.

I don’t think so either, and I don’t think I said this.  I recognize the immanent apocalypticism that you describe and that LB’s James Berger similarly appears to refer to and was attempting to identify just that in my post.  My gripe is with the apocalypticism per se, not with the thought that he anticipates an apocalyptic event.  The fact that some readers associate this with trauma (in my view, among the most lamentable intellectual creations of recent years) gets at some of my reasons for disliking it.

By on 08/07/05 at 11:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As I recall, Derrida’s ‘Of Spirit’ is mostly about Heidegger, when he (H) finally uses the term (after alluding to it only, I guess).  I only read it once, but I remember phrases like ‘that’s what I like about Heidegger’ and things about what was ‘dangerous’ in him.  (All of you are much more well-versed in this, but I didn’t see that Derrida text mentioned in the thread.) In any case, Heidegger had to have been important to Derrida if what I remember from this text is correct.

By on 08/09/05 at 10:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, that was it, ‘Of Spirit:  Heidegger and the Question.’ http://sauer-thompson.com/conversations/archives/002474.html

By on 08/09/05 at 11:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As usual, Adam says it quite well, and with breathtaking patience given the history of such debates.

By Matt on 08/15/05 at 07:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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