Somehow I’ve found myself embroiled in a debate over Derrida. I find this odd as the post that initially spurred this debate wasn’t about Derrida at all. that post was about tone. As I’ve said, I really have no dog in this debate one way or another. Derrida is not a particularly important thinker to me, nor a regular point of reference in my own thought. And to repeat again, I just can’t tell y’all how much this just isn’t a debate I’m interested in or that I find valuable. That said, I’m not going to begrudge anyone who has found Derrida important or valuable. Derrida is a particularly important thinker for my good friend Tim Morton. We are collaborating on a number of projects with one another. I find nothing objectionable in this, nor do I see myself as getting in some heated debate with him over whether or not he should be using Derrida. I find Morton’s work interesting, including his use of Derrida, and that’s as far as it goes. Likewise, Scu has found a number of valuable things in Derrida. Again, it’s not like I’m going to get in a heated debate with Scu over this influence. I find what Scu is doing interesting, that’s enough.
A lot of this debate strikes me as juvenile or just plain silly. As I read through the comments, it sounds like fans of chocolate ice cream trying to persuade fans of vanilla to like chocolate and vice versa. In this connection, I think Bogost says it all when he says that sometimes you just get tired of oysters. If I have any gripe with Derrida, this gripe pertains to how I think hermeneutics and deconstruction have contributed to how Continental conferences, graduate programs, and journals have come to be structured. Some seem to think I’m making an all or nothing proposal: “We should get rid of deconstruction and hermeneutics!” While I get frustrated with my colleagues that believe that close reading is the end all, be all of philosophy, this is not my position. I want broader options available, not the limitation of options. I want programs, journals, and conferences where one can do their thing going through Aristotle with a fine tooth comb and where others can easily pursue classical metaphysical, ethical, political, aesthetic, and epistemological questions without having to do so in a way that is primarily driven by commentary on the texts of other thinkers. In this connection, Gratton describes my own position:
I’m on record that I find the “I’ve read this through a certain figure” a type of bloated stretchmark type of intellectual work, and about as pretty. Look, there in the cracks, it’s there! And I’ve said numerous times here that I wish more people would stop trying to make something of a master figure and be happy that they’re doing that work.
I’d love to see a SPEP conference schedule that gives equal time to conference papers that contain no names of master-figures in their titles, that are not primarily engagements with the texts of master-figures, as it gives to careful commentary and analysis. I don’t think this is an unreasonable or objectionable desire.
K-Punk has a nice post up discussing his own reaction to deconstruction. Mark nicely gets at what I object to, writing:
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.
And that’s just it. Some have pointed to where Derrida speaks of cells or DNA. But you never really get a discussion of cells or DNA in Derrida. You only ever get these things treated as texts. Personally I just don’t find this interesting. However, my favorite part of Mark’s post is the following:
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.
Mark’s reference to this draining and dispiriting hegemony gets right to the point. In a number of respects, it comes as no surprise that these debates are occurring in the context of the rise of the new realism. Debates about thinkers are never just debates about the content of what a thinker says. At the institutional level they are also debates about the canon and about what who we are authorized to read and reference and what we are authorized to say. Are we restricted to Derrida, Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Husserl, Levinas, Lacan, etc., or are we able to treat thinkers like Lewontin, Oyama, Stephen J. Gould, Luhmann, and so on as key thinkers.
An interesting feature of speculative realism and other new trends in philosophy is that they all propose a new canon. While Badiou is not a speculative realist, we nonetheless see him proposing to treat Cantor and Sartre’s later thought (largely ignored and passe today) as key references. Graham recommends Zubiri, Gasset, Latour, and Suarez as key points of reference. Meillassoux resurrects Hume (never popular or revered in continental circles outside of Deleuzians). Brassier champions the Churchlands and Laruelle. Morton makes Darwin a key point of reference. Bogost draws attention to thinkers like McLuhan and Wolfram. I hope to have made some small contribution by introducing Roy Bhaskar, Stengers, Haraway, Hayles, Luhmann, the developmental systems theorists (along with Protevi and Toscano), and a number of biological theorists. Changes in the canon are also changes in patterns of thought and in what it is possible to say and think. The Enlightenment thinkers were deeply unfair to both the scholastics and Aristotle, often misrepresenting their positions. But in a number of respects, that wasn’t the point. In that historical context the hegemony of the scholastics and Aristotle had to be overcome so something new could emerge. These couldn’t be done by continuing to work with the dominant references of the time.
Zizek likes to point out how we always posit our own historical conditions. This, perhaps, is a problem with the new historicists. They treat history as determining intellectual movements, failing to recognize how thinkers and artists posit their own historical references, becoming what they are as a result of this paradoxical positing. The Enlightenment thinkers had to leap over the Christian tradition and rediscover Greek and Roman antiquity to become themselves or the Enlightenment thinkers. Their scholastic inheritance had to go underground and become furtive so that they could imagine a new set of conceptual personae for themselves. I believe these debates are less about Derrida than about whether or not its legitimate to posit a different history and canon.