August 08, 2010

Deconstruction as pathology

The infinite debt of scholarship - thanks for James Trafford for the link

    When a philosopher nowadays makes known that he is not a skeptic—I hope that has been gathered from the foregoing description of the objective spirit?—people all hear it impatiently; they regard him on that account with some apprehension, they would like to ask so many, many questions . . . indeed among timid hearers, of whom there are now so many, he is henceforth said to be dangerous. With his repudiation of skepticism, it seems to them as if they heard some evil- threatening sound in the distance, as if a new kind of explosive were being tried somewhere, a dynamite of the spirit, perhaps a newly discovered Russian NIHILINE, a pessimism BONAE VOLUNTATIS, that not only denies, means denial, but-dreadful thought! PRACTISES denial. Against this kind of “good-will"—a will to the veritable, actual negation of life—there is, as is generally acknowledged nowadays, no better soporific and sedative than skepticism, the mild, pleasing, lulling poppy of skepticism; and Hamlet himself is now prescribed by the doctors of the day as an antidote to the “spirit,” and its underground noises. “Are not our ears already full of bad sounds?” say the skeptics, as lovers of repose, and almost as a kind of safety police; “this subterranean Nay is terrible! Be still, ye pessimistic moles!" The skeptic, in effect, that delicate creature, is far too easily frightened; his conscience is schooled so as to start at every Nay, and even at that sharp, decided Yea, and feels something like a bite thereby. Yea! and Nay!—they seem to him opposed to morality; he loves, on the contrary, to make a festival to his virtue by a noble aloofness, while perhaps he says with Montaigne: “What do I know?” Or with Socrates: “I know that I know nothing.” Or: “Here I do not trust myself, no door is open to me.” Or: “Even if the door were open, why should I enter immediately?” Or: “What is the use of any hasty hypotheses? It might quite well be in good taste to make no hypotheses at all. Are you absolutely obliged to straighten at once what is crooked? to stuff every hole with some kind of oakum? Is there not time enough for that? Has not the time leisure? Oh, ye demons, can ye not at all WAIT? The uncertain also has its charms, the Sphinx, too, is a Circe, and Circe, too, was a philosopher."—Thus does a skeptic console himself; and in truth he needs some consolation. For skepticism is the most spiritual expression of a certain many-sided physiological temperament, which in ordinary language is called nervous debility and sickliness. - Nietzshce, Beyond Good and Evil

I'm loath to come in on the Derrida debate, after already allowing myself to be drawn into it on Twitter. But I do think that there are important issues in play here ....

I should preface this with the inevitable disclaimer: clearly, I regard some of Derrida's ideas as important, and I'm pleased to have them in my conceptual armoury. However, I think a hostility towards deconstruction is justfied on at least two grounds.

1. The textualism When people are refuting the claim that Derrida "reduces the world to text", I think they are confusing two things. What is being attributed to Derrida by his opponents is not an ontological claim (the world is nothing but text) but a methodological tendency (he always treated everything he wrote about as if it were a text). For me, Graham's point about Derrida's always writing about books and texts is devastating. Throw any subject at Derrida, and he would give back to you a textual/ tropological analysis. To pose the question of whether Derrida was a realist or not is meaningless; this kind of problem doesn't enter into his work. Which was not philosophy: much of what is interesting about Derrida comes from his interstitial position between literary theory and philosophy, the way that he drew philosophical implications from supposedly "literary" features of texts. I'm not saying that a philosophy couldn't be construed from elements of Derrida's work. But turning it into A Philosophy is already "to do violence" to it. Naturally, I welcome such "violence". Nothing could be less Derridean than thinking that you can ignore the form in which something is written, and just render it as a series of determinate propositions. (I've yet to read Hägglund, but he interests me not because I expect him to offer a "faithful reading" of Derrida's thought, but because he uses Derrida to produce a fascinating philosophy of time.)

2. The cult The fact that deconstruction is a cult is not in itself a problem; most intellectual movements have cultic elements. It's the particular nature of the deconstruction cult that is the problem. On Twitter, I called it a "pious and pernicious cult of indeterminacy". Many younger readers just won't have the experience of how draining and dispiriting the deconstructive hegemony was. (And all you trolls and grey vampires out there don't know how lucky you are having philosophers to sink your teeth into who write in a lucid way, and who have propositions clear enough for you to quibble and nitpick at.) I really believe that deconstruction is a kind of intellectual pathology, and not in any interesting way. Deconstruction is sceptical not epistemologically, but in the sense that Nietzsche outlines above: it abjures any "yes" or "no", and makes a virtue of vacillation and equivocation. Deconstructive etiquette (which, like most bourgeois protocols, always remains implicit - a gentleman just knows how to behave) finds any strong claims distasteful. What irks about is the solemn performance of "thoughtfulness" - where "thoughtfulness" is equated with being a good reader, and being a good reader means accumulating references and ostentatiously avoiding making any determinate claims. It is a kind of negative theology of scholarship, at the same time intensely religiose and onanistically indulgent. (I do think that these pathologies find their natural home in the grey vampure zone of the academy; conversely, Derrida's work has often been a great potentiator outside the university and its footnote-pressure: think of his role in UK music journalism). In a fabulously catty passage, Jameson argued that deconstruction is characterised "by the avoidance of the affirmative sentence as such, of the philosophical proposition. Deconstruction thus neither 'affirmeth nor denieth' ;it does not emit propositions in that sense at all ( the unavoidable moments of lowered guard and the relaxation of tension, in which a few affirmations slip through or the openly affirmative sentence startles the unprepared reader). "

I think people have also missed Graham's original point, which was that the faux-sophistication of "correcting" these "misconceptions" is just a cheap form of one upmanship. A second order cliche is worse than a first order cliche. Better to refer to an artist's "second album" than to talk of their "sophomore effort". Far better to have a caricatured reading of a philosopher as the basis for a new, strong theory, rather than a pettifogging academic-accountant's "correct reading" .... which is impossible to find any way, and only leads to the grey vampirism of "scholarship", with its infinite debt and infinite neurosis.

One of the great lessons I've learned from Graham's work is that opacity is a given. You don't have to artificially generate indeterminacy
by an elaborate, passive aggressive performance of obscurantist evasion. Any encounter between two things is always of the order of a caricature. But producing the caricature inevitably results in the subterranean depths that are not capured by the caricature becoming visible in their very withdrawal - like the shadows thrown up by a lantern. Lucidity produces its own shadow zone; vagueness and vacillation generate only a grey fuzz. (Perhaps that is one reason that Derrida's early work - brilliant readings of Plato, Rousseau et al - has something which is late work - deep into its own cult - lacks.)

Posted by mark at August 8, 2010 10:09 PM | TrackBack