In response to one of Cogburn’s comments, Marc Goodman writes:

I think Matthew’s point is that what is important here is what is already in Derrida and that neither turning to his sharpest interpreters (whether one prefers Culler, Braver, Marder, or Hägglund) let alone the Derrideans (who neither supporters nor detractors seem to have many good words for), is necessary for this conversation to take place.

I think what Marc says here is a good deal of what’s being objected to. This is not so much a point about Derrida as about certain common practices (and debate practices) in Continental philosophy. The problem is that we’re never done with the text, we get imprisoned in the text… And this for reasons that Derrida himself outlines: because there is no transcendental signified, no final interpretent, no final signified. I don’t disagree with this thesis.

What I’m pointing to is what follows from this in terms of institutional practices. The thing we commonly see with advocates of deconstruction and hermeneutics is, whenever faced with any criticism, is to call for a return to the careful reading of the text. But this is a trap. Whether intentional or not, it is a trap designed to insure that we never move out of the history of philosophy, an established canon, and the text. It is, as Mark Fisher and Harman have both said, a form of upsmanship. On the one hand, the person making this call will always be able to find some obscure or passing quote in any text, some out of the way, marginal essay, etc., to support their point. On the other hand, given that Derrida defends the indeterminancy of meaning (Mark’s about about the prohibition against positive enunciation or statement) and the manner in which everything explodes its context, the Derridean will always have infinite resources for defending his position and insuring that you remain locked in the text.

As a consequence, the work of interpretation becomes endless and infinite, and those trapped within it become like Sisyphus, doomed to endlessly roll their boulder of interpretation, etymology, rhetorical analysis, etc., up the mountain of this history. The paradox is that deconstruction thereby becomes the most conservative of ideologies precisely because we are perpetually trapped in the text and prohibited from making any positive claims. I think Gratton admirably identifies the return of the repressed, the symptom, that emerges out of this: Insofar as we are prohibited from making positive claims on our own behalf, we do all sorts of acrobatics to make philosophers in the history of philosophy claim what we want to say. And in my view, this is just a profound time drain. Rather than simply making and defending the claim ourselves, we instead engage in all sorts of textual contortions to make, for example, Descartes say what we’d like to say.

A while back I coined the term “minotaur” to describe this sort of conceptual personae. The minotaur is that conceptual personae or figure of philosophy whose first reaction is 1) to say “you’ve misinterpreted x”, 2) to always call for a return to the text, and 3) to prohibit any positive philosophical claim or evaluation of another philosopher’s position without first reading the entirety of that philosophers work. Although the analogy to mythology isn’t perfect, the idea is that the minotaur turns any philosophical discussion into an impossible to escape labyrinth that he fiercely guards with the axe of calls for close readings.

Some have called me a hypocrite for denouncing the figure of the minotaur for simultaneously denouncing this sort of practice while accusing others of misinterpreting my positions. This is a superficial strawman to say the least. The point of the figure of the minotaur is that he is essentially a scholar that guards philosophy carefully by restricting it to the history of philosophy and fiercely denouncing any criticism of figures in the history of philosophy. The point is not that the minotaur points out misinterpretations– misinterpretations genuinely exist –but that the minotaur reduces every criticism to misinterpretation. It is perfectly legitimate for a philosopher to point out when others have misinterpreted his or her claims. The mark of the minotaur, by contrast, is the restriction of philosophy to the history of philosophy, the call for endless interpretation, and the reduction of all criticism to misinterpretation.

One might conclude that I am making a call for sloppy reading. But I’m not. Interpretation has its place and is a healthy and necessary activity. However, as Mark notes, certain interpretative practices are pathological. In psychoanalytic terms, washing your hands is a perfectly ordinary and healthy activity, but washing your hands three hundred times a day when you’re not a doctor is an obsessive symptom. And this is how it is today with a lot of Continental philosophy.

Additionally, it’s my view that a number of Continental texts are designed as labyrinths such that they are rhetorically put together in precisely such a way as to trap the reader and provide no means of moving on. A good deal of Hegel is like this. Derrida is certainly like this. Lacan is like this. Much of Luhmann is like this. Deleuze is like this. (Note that I’ve cited four thinkers here who are huge influences in my own thought). These texts are put together in vague, elliptical, allusive, and polysemous ways so as to prevent the reader from pinning them down. In the case of Hume, Kant, Descartes, and Spinoza, I can readily pin down the claims they’re making and their arguments for these claims. In the case of the above listed thinkers, by contrast, I become a slave to the text, forced into an infinite labor of interpretation that never ends. Shouldn’t there be a point where we can move on?

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