Responding to a post of mine that I deleted because I thought it unnecessarily catty, Peter Gratton makes some interesting observations about the nature of commentary as practiced in Continental philosophy. Referring to a conversation he was having with someone about Kristeva he writes:

I was talking a bit about Kristeva and I finally just said, you know, you’re on to something, but that’s you, not Kristeva. I’ve had that problem with other figures, too: people do interesting work on these figures and then suggest I’m not getting them if they don’t see their revolutionary potential. And I think, I’ve read them. You do great work on that topic, but why do you need to say it’s some sort of thing immanent to them? At some point, to simplify, you’re not doing commentary and if someone says, I don’t agree that X figure can be read that way, don’t take it as an insult—think of it as your original contribution. To take an example I’ve used here, I’ve talked about Derrida as someone who perhaps isn’t anathema to realism as some would think. But at a certain point, do I need to read it through him? In other words, we often read arguments from authority in our circles, which is a disservice to the philosophical, essayistic work of these philosophers.

In many respects, I think Gratton formulates the point much better than I, or rather, perhaps there are two distinct issues here. On the one hand, when I was in graduate school, at least, I experienced an acute pressure from my professors to engage only in close reading. To be sure, there was no prohibition against creative readings of philosophical texts, but nonetheless there was an expectation that all writing should be on or about philosophical texts. The idea of doing something like Kripke’s Naming and Necessity was unthinkable within this context because the unspoken premise was that all philosophical work had to be parasitic on some other philosophical text.

On the other hand, there’s the tendency for Continental philosophy to work through arguments from authority. A good friend of mine drives me crazy in this regard. He begins with a terrific idea of his own but is always convinced that he is not authorized to articulate this idea himself. He then throws himself into intense research, scouring numerous philosophical texts and articles, looking for masters who have articulated this idea. And, of course, since no idea is ever entirely unprecedented, he finds all sorts of instances in the cannon where others have said something similar to what he wishes to claim (here I’m reminded of Lacan’s discussion of the analysand that was convinced he was a plagiarist, despite the originality of his ideas). And here the tragedy comes in. Believing that his idea has already been articulated by one of the masters, he loses all will to write for there’s no longer any point in putting pen to paper.

Perhaps it’s because my philosophical background primarily comes out of French philosophy– Thinkers such as Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan, Badiou, etc. –but I’ve always found this dependence on authority in Continental thought rather peculiar, if not an outright contradiction. Let’s situate this in terms of Deleuze, Derrida, and Lacan in particular. In one form or another, all of these thinkers are “anti-Oedipal”. Lacan, for example, perpetually shows the split in the master-signifier, or the manner in which it is a sham. For Lacan, a big part of traversing the fantasy consists in the discovery that the Other itself is barred or split, that the Other does not exist, that it is a sort of transcendental illusion. And this is Lacan’s way of thumbing his nose at the Oedipus. Something similar takes place in Deleuze and Derrida, and when Badiou argues that the One is not he is making a similar claim. All of these thinkers vigorously submit the transcendent One to critique in their own way.

Given this, isn’t there something deeply peculiar in an academic practice that constantly repeats these arguments while situating these thinkers in the position of the One or in the position of authority? What could be more Oedipal than this gesture or way of doing philosophy? What could be more Oedipal than believing that one must refer to a master in order to feel authorized to speak? So I suppose the question is why don’t we feel authorized to speak? Why is it that we feel compelled, as in the case of Gratton’s colleague, to speak through Kristeva, to mine Kristeva’s texts so as to make them say what we want to say, rather than simply approaching Kristeva as an interlocutor and integrating elements of that position where appropriate as Aristotle did with other philosophers, while also feeling free to state our own positions and arguments? Has something shifted in our contemporary moment such that we feel we are no longer authorized to speak? I think such a thesis would be far too generalizing for certainly figures like Badiou have no difficulty adopting their own positions, and this does not seem to be a compelling problem within Anglo-American philosophy. Rather, it strikes me as a deeply entrenched effect of certain institutional structures and programs, of how we are trained, rather than the result of some grand mutation in the symbolic order. How did we arrive at this new scholasticism?