This debate about Derrida is truly not a debate I wish to have. I think all of us have more or less said our piece and there’s really not much more to be said. Moreover, I just don’t see how this debate is conducive to my own work or what it contributes to that work. I think Scu, in his post over at Critical Animal, and Ian, in a couple of his posts here, hit the mark. Scu writes:
In both Levi’s and Harman’s cases, I think this Derrida was suffocating for them. Both of them have talked about the sort of push back to doing work that wasn’t commentaries from their pro-Derrida grad programs. In one of these posts Harman even talks about how derridians didn’t exactly support his book Tool-Being.
This describes my position exactly. First, I, contrary to what Scu implies in his post, I have gotten a lot out of Derrida. My Master’s thesis, paradoxically written after my dissertation, was on Derrida. I learned a lot from him and have been deeply influenced by his thought. However, second, Scu is absolutely right in observing that I have found a certain institutional atmosphere in Continental philosophy to be literally suffocating. I cut my teeth in a graduate program focused on the history of philosophy that was filled with Derrideans and Gadamerians. What I found suffocating is that philosophical discussion became debates about texts rather than issues. Hours would be spent analyzing texts, debating what philosophers meant, tracing out etymological resonances, tracing historical lineages etc., without ever evaluating the claims and arguments of these philosophical texts.
Two things followed from such an orientation. First, any criticism of a philosopher’s claims was immediately transformed into the claim that the philosopher had been misinterpreted. While misinterpretation does indeed take place and it is important to get one’s interpretations right, a) the tendency within Continental circles is to infinitely prolong the labor of interpretation such that philosophical work and argumentation is never reached, and b) I’ve simply never seen a Continental philosopher in this tradition ever concede that the interpretation was valid and that a criticism is not a matter of misinterpretation. In other words, the possibility of counter-argument against, say, Hume is always deferred. We give it lip service without ever actually practicing it. Or, at least, this is the rule.
Second, philosophy is transformed into the analysis of philosophical texts by these orientations. What the contemporary Continental philosopher is supposed to do, within this framework, is analyze texts. This tendency is so pronounced that those who do original work even come to be called “analytic philosophers” by Continentalists. I’ve often heard Manuel DeLanda, for example, referred to as an analytic philosopher because of the nature of his work and the fact that it doesn’t primarily grapple with texts or the history of philosophy. In my darker moments I sometimes wonder if humanities shouldn’t be restructured so that the people who wish to engage in the work of commentary are placed in history departments and philosophy departments are dominated primarily by themes and questions. I say “in my darker moments” because I, of course, still engage heavily in the analysis of texts as a way of thinking. What I object to is an institutional climate that normalizes textual engagement as the dominant and primary way of doing philosophy. In my view, any glance at the SPEP schedule reveals what a crisis American Continental thought is in. 90% of the papers are commentaries on other thinkers and they are selected for precisely this reason. This, I believe, is both decadent and ridiculous and something we should work to change.
Ian, in his comments, gets it right. Ian writes:
As for the Whitehead quote, I find it helpful not for any love or hate of Derrida (believe me, my feelings about Derrida are neither of those) but because it opens the door to other ways of engaging with thinkers and thought beyond formal logic and text-mining.
Earlier on he writes:
I think we’d do well to remember the old Whitehead aphorism about philosophies not being disproven but abandoned. In my case, my disinterest in Derrida is as much one of weariness and overconsumption as it is in disbelief, perhaps more so. It’s the same feeling one gets after gorging on oysters for a week at the seashore. Who can stand even to look at another oyster? Some will claim such a perspective lacks “rigor” (one of my least favorite defenses), but I’m afraid I just don’t care. A different kind of engagement with philosophy, I think, describes one of the differences between SR/OOO and previous continental trends.
This, I think, is what it’s all about. On the one hand, it’s a question of fostering institutional settings that are more conducive to other sorts and styles of intellectual work. In my view, one of the reasons there’s been so much flight out of Philosophy departments into Literature, Media Studies, Political Theory, Rhetoric, Gender Studies, etc., is precisely that Continental philosophy departments are rather stiffling in the sort of work that they encourage. This is about power and how power is wielded by institutions. It ranges across the entire sphere of Continental philosophy departments. Whether we’re talking about what graduate directors encourage students to write their dissertations on, what sort of support they give their students, how course assignments are structured, what types of papers Continental philosophy conferences encourage, and what sort of articles Continental philosophy journals encourage, there is just a tremendous focus on commentary. There will always be exceptions who escape these hegemonies, but just as we don’t talk about the realities of poverty by appealing to Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, who built an empire without a highschool degree, we shouldn’t measure the state of Continental programs by those few exceptions that manage to escape the commentary industry.
Additionally, I just think we’ve reached a point where it’s time to begin rethinking the canon. Derrida has made a number of important contributions, but it’s time to begin looking at other thinkers and emphasizing other thinkers besides Derrida, Gadamer, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Kant, Hegel, Deleuze, etc., etc., etc. Such encounters disrupt worn and rote patterns of thinking and allow for the development of new forms of thinking. Suppose that someone does indeed demonstrate that Derrida is really a hardcore realist. Fine. But perhaps this still isn’t reason enough to grant Derrida such an important place in the humanities. Perhaps it’s time to move on for a while and explore other thinkers so as to head off what have become rote patterns of thought.