Sunday, May 11, 2008

Strategic Misreading

I used to say that one of the things I both loved and hated about philosopher Richard Rorty's work was that he was a master of what I call "strategic misreading." If you've ever read Rorty's famous foray into the "Continental" (European) philosophical tradition, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, you may have some sense of what I mean by this. Although Rorty's text is both interesting and provocative in its own right, it relies heavily on sometimes reductive, sometimes even burlesque, caricatures of "canonical" European philosophers (like Derrida, Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger). Now, it's one thing to simply be a "bad reader" of texts, and another thing to "strategically misread" texts. To practice the latter, I would argue, does not (necessarily) indicate a deficiency in one's philosophical skill or probity, but rather an active engagement in something genuinely productive. I think of it a little bit like this: we all start with the same "toolbox" of texts drawn from the history of philosophy, but in the process of employing those "tools" to build up and fortify our own projects, we often use different tools differently. So, I may need to drive a nail into a plank in order to shore up a particular structure, and I may decide that instead of using a hammer to do that, I can just use the broad end of a wrench. If my neighbor says to me: "But that's not what a wrench is for!", then I may feel compelled to demonstrate how limited, unimaginative, and reliant upon the-original-intent-of-the-toolmaker my neighbor's world-view is. I may even go so far as to point out to my neighbor that s/he is complicit in a grander, though subtler, agenda on the part of the Hegemonic Toolmakers, and that the very capacity of human beings to construct things independently and with some authenticity is threatened by just this sort of sheepish behavior. I may further remind my neighbor that the broad side of a wrench also can be used as an instrument of revolutionary violence.

Then, I may remember that sometimes our metaphors run away with themselves...

Back to "strategic misreading": My point is that-- and as a deconstructionista I am constitutionally obligated to make this point at least once ever 72 hours-- all texts can be, perhaps always are, strategically misread. (And remember, il n'y a pas de hors-texte!) So, I am less interested, as a general rule, in the "misreading" than I am in the "strategy" that said misreading supplements. In Rorty's case, I have only a little objection to his sometimes ham-handed readings of Derrida, Freud, et al because I can see the strategy that it is in the service of, which has to do with articulating a philosophically and politically fecund sense of irony. However, and now I am coming to the point, the "strategies" behind the "misreadings" are not always so easily discerned, nor are they always so productive.

To supplement my argument in the previous post, I direct you to the much-circulated essay by Bob Herbert in the New York Times entitled "Seeds of Destruction," in which Herbert lambasts Hillary (and Bill) Clinton for "deliberately trying to wreck the presidential prospects of [their] party's likely nominee." Herbert begins with the (strategically misread) comment by Hillary Clinton last week, when she claimed that "Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again." (An interesting, though equally damning, analysis of the semiotics of that statement can be found here.) Herbert, predictably, uses this quote as an opportunity to brand Clinton a racist and, further, to point out the many and varied reasons why she (and, again, Bill) are actually classist.

I hope this goes without saying-- I'm going to say it anyway, just in case-- but I am not interested in defending Clinton's particular choice of words here, which I think was sloppy at best, thoughtless at least. On the other hand, I do think that one would be hard-pressed to find actual evidence of Hillary Clinton practicing the "racist" politics that she is so often accused of practicing. Rather, as I said before, I think these criticisms of her comments are in the service of a larger "strategy" of divide-and-conquer (employed almost without conscience by the mass media right now) intended to force American/Democratic voters into deciding who is the worst off in our society: women or blacks. The problem with this is, first, that we're being presented with a false dilemma and, second, that we seem to keep missing the point that these criticisms of Hillary Clinton (especially inasmuch as they are always couched in the context of her role as the handmaiden to Bill Clinton) reinforce exactly the sorts of stereotypes of women that prevent women from being taken seriously as political, especially presidential, candidates. She's cunning, she's emotional, she's irrational, she's"shrill," she's a shrew. And she's undermining the hopes of us all with her self-interested, divisive rhetoric. In short, she's Yoko Ono... and we still want the "old" Beatles.

But, you know, the broad side of a wrench is perfectly suited for hammering in this nail. To hell with the toolmaker.

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