Monday, August 04, 2008

Pères de Docteur

There's an interesting discussion over at Perverse Egalitarianism following a post entitled "Derrida and the Professors" in which the post's author (Mikhail Emelianov) asks:

Why is it that Derrida’s philosophy, after a quick and eventful love affair with American English departments and a rather scandalous world tour and a series of “live albums” (excuse my music analogy here), has ultimately failed to make its essential points stick?

It's a good question, and one that I have wondered to myself on many occasions. Emelianov speculates that the problem is with the practitioners of (what he terms) "derridalogy"-- mostly philosophy professors who are excellent "commentators and summarizers" but who are not original thinkers, even less so bona fide deconstructors, perhaps only barely more than the rough-hewn products of a rather silly Derridean orthodoxy. What it means to be a "Derrida scholar" these days, according to Emelianov, is pretty much to be a kind of anal-retentive curator (or archivist) of the Master's minutiae. That is, Emelianov worries that the secondary literature on Derrida reads more like a series of tributes to the Doktorvater (the best French equivalent I could manage is pères de docteur), which is a rather peculiar phenomenon given that one of the first principles of Derridean Orthodoxy seems to be that "philosophy" is not only scandalous, but should be scandalized.

For the most part, I agree with Emelianov's complaints concerning the state of secondary literature on Derrida these days. (Although, for the record, I actually studied under two of the main targets of his criticisms, and I think he's a little hard on them!) The problem is not, of course, that commentators on Derrida's work are simply commentators-- because Derrida himself was, famously, an excellent commentator on other philosophers (Plato, Rousseau, Marx, Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, etc., etc.) at the same time as being an original thinker. There's nothing about "secondary" literature that requires it to be completely derivative. The problem is rather that commentators on Derrida's work are often not very original. They are, instead, merely "professors" (in the pejorative/Kierkegaardian sense)... and I think Emelianov is right to point out that such orthodox professing is at odds with the ostensible project of philosophy-inspired-by-Derrida.

So, who's fault is this? Is there something about Derrida's work (or Derrida himself) that necessarily produces a cult of personality? It's certainly conceivable that the combination of Derrida's fame and eccentricity served as a kind of catalyst for poseurs who wanted to mimic the tricks of the Master without mastering the trade... but I'm mostly disinclined to believe this, if only because there are still really good "Derrideans" out there. Furthermore, there are plenty of other contemporary philosophers that seem to have inspired similar phenomena-- Foucault, Badiou, Negri, Deleuze and Guattari, just to mention a few. One of my chief complaints about the secondary literature on Derrida for years has been that I couldn't understand why native English-speakers still wrote as if they had been translated from French. Obviously, they were doing their best to ape the "style" of Derrida, though the resulting texts (and ideas) were mostly disastrous. But those disasters pale in comparison, in my mind, to conversations I've had with some of the Deleuzians out there, who could not tell you what "rhizomatic" or "the body without organs" actually means if their very precious plane of immanence depended on it.

So, I am led to wonder whether the fault lies not with the pères de docteur (because, let's be honest, we're mostly talking about the Frenchies here) but perhaps rather with a particular generation (or two) of American philosophers/professors. I don't want to continue to fuel the fire of contemporary stereotypes of the Continental/Analytic philosophy divide, but I find myself sympathetic with at least one variation on the Continental/European philosophy stereotype usually put forth by critics trained in the Analytic tradition, which is that some of our leading voices are too quick to sacrifice substance and clarity for style. Maybe that's the fault of their sources of inspiration... but I doubt it.


Mikhail Emelianov said...

Dr. J, I think you're quite fair in your summary of my rant - and I'm using the word "rant" here to simply infuse some passion into my post, not to say that I am unjust to those I speak of - I think my frustration comes from hours and hours of reading that in case of Derrida literature often results in a kind of feeling of time wasted. My main interest in Derrida was his essay "Force of Law" and the related issues (like Politics of Friendship) but despite what one might think it is hard to find an intelligent engagement with Derrida's position, all you find are multiple summaries, compare-contrast, or expositions and collection of other places where Derrida discusses the similar themes... For once I'd like to read something that does not just challenge Derrida, but pursues the thought, not the man, asks the question, mulls over the implications and so on - again, it is a mystery to me why the result of such a great philosophical project is nothing but derridalogy and not really any kind of Derridean philosophy, even if in terms of negative anti-Derrida sentiment (thoughtful, of course, not hysterical...)

emma b said...

I think the root of the problem here is that an awful lot of Derrideans are defenders. Do you remember the level of vitriol Derrida inspired in the academy? WHY he only found succour in English departments and philosophers generally laughed him out of town? In the face of that it's hard not to lapse into hagiography and emulation. Oh the Prayers and Tears... (the masculine Catholic rendering is my least favourite, I must confess! And the feminist daughters, conversely, I believe have been the best in taking up D. and truly running with him).

And then there's the style question. As someone trying to hammer my (psychoanalytic, feminist) deconstruction of Aristotle into a readable book, and aware of the phenomenologists' credo that we hardly ever see that which is closest to us, I'm dead afraid that some of my Deep Important Insights just risk falling into the category of "duh." I am trying not to grasp on to jargon as a defense against that, but especially when you've been staring at your own writing for so long it is hard hard hard to tell how best, rhetorically and philosophically, to steer that course.

emma b said...

PS. I still like how Gayatri Spivak put it... "why should I subscribe to your criteria for intelligibility?"

DOCTOR J said...

Mikhail: Thanks for the comment. Like you, I am mostly inspired by the thread of Derrida's though that began with "Force of Law" and continued through The Politics of Friendship (though, to be honest, I think that thread was there all along, in everything). And also like you, I find much of the seconary lit on Derrida quite tiresome... but, alas, I still have hope (even if in my own contributions "to come").

emma: You're right, I agree, to say that the feminists have done the best job of taking up Derrida "properly" (terribly bad adjective, I know). Malabou and Spivak are primo examples of that. But your not-so-subtle dig at Caputo (in your "prayers and tears" remark) is a bit unfair, I think.

Let me just go on record as defending Caputo against you (and Emelianov) by saying that I think anyone would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that Caputo-- however "Catholic" he may be-- is not really taking Derrida at his word, rather than simply aping some kind of "derridalogy." I'm not particularly inclined towards a "religious" (read: "God-inclusive") reading of Derrida myself, but I think the work that Caputo has done on Derrida's notion of the a venir is eminently useful to anyone who is intersted in the way that the human disposition towards the future is figured (including readers of Kant, Banjamin, Agamben, Levinas, and many others). And, I think that Caputo-- excellent "explicater" that he may be-- has never merely been a commentator on Derrida, as one might rightly accuse many of the other prominent "Derrideans."

But that's just my $0.02.

Mikhail Emelianov said...

I'm just glad to see the term "derridalogy" quietly entering the conversation. I might agree with you on Caputo because his own version of Derrida is anything but derivative (even if slightly dull), still I blame him for exemplifying the whole new hagiographic style of writing about Derrida that you've pointedly identified as a sort of "archiving" plus we all know they were buddies, so there's no need to constantly imply that Jacques himself approved of Jack's interpretations - it's annoying, even if true... I wonder if Derrida's possible influence is actually significantly hampered precisely by all of the defenders and disciples? It's hard to take a thinker seriously when there's an army of faithful apologists and exegetes - thus my hypothesis: once the exegetes are dead or moved on, there's little hope of real engagement simply because anyone writing on Derrida today simply has to reference all that dull secondary lit, otherwise one will be accuse of not being informed (and we all know how horrible that accusation is...).

Booga Face said...

Hold on a sec -- is there anything unique about Derrida here? Isn't most of the work done by professors of philosophy and literature like that, whether the professor is writing on Rousseau, Marx, or Wittgenstein... or about Shakespeare or Hawthorne. I mean, doesn't continental philosophy have a tradition of interpretation, and hasn't a part of the discipline of interpretation always been hagiographic anyway?

And how can we blame young disciples for immitating their master? That is one of the ways we learn, right? And it's true that most academic publications are not worth reading, but some are, and the next generation has to learn somehow, and the best way to learn is practice, practice, practice.... Unfortunately, the tenure review process all too often requires that that "practice" be published.

So, frankly, I don't get Mihail's complaint at all.

I guess the analytic philosophers (Carnap, Quine, etc.) write in a different way. They don't spend all their time interpreting old masters or aping the style of their teachers, but their stuff always seems to be splitting hairs and ultimately saying the same thing over and over.

DOCTOR J said...

No significant objections here, Booga.

Mikhail Emelianov said...

Booga, the people we are talking about were "young disciples" long long time ago and these days most are quite old and, if I see your point, cannot be forgiven for utter dullness of their interpretations. I disagree with you on the matter - interpretation and "secondary lit" do not, by definition, mean "hagiographic" - I think it is precisely such identification that leads to a lowering of the bar, if you will, if "young disciples" judge their work to be good enough because it is commentary and it thus cannot be exciting and original. Is Derrida's case unique? In a sense, of course, it is not - many an exciting thinker caused others to simply reproduce his insights (thus my example of Kierkegaard in my original post, you can think of Nietzsche as well) But consider people like Foucault or Deleuze, if hagiographic dullness is simply the fate of philosophical interpretation driven by the need to publish, then why do interpretations of Foucault or Deleuze (just as examples, of course) do not in general abide in dullness (although there are sinners there too)? My basic complaint is: how did the scandalous thought of Derrida manage to produce mostly sterile epigones when the Master himself was so provocative? I am hyperbolizing, of course, just to make my point.

John said...

Excellent and insightful post, Leigh. The first problem that comes to mind for me with a body of Derridean scholarship is the attempt to package Derrida's thought-- as though the institution of philosophy were continually saying "put this in your pipe and smoke it". What I mean is that Derrida's thought is resolutely, consistently opposed to the introduction or preface being considered external (the entire book Dissemination is concerned with the issue of prefacing). While I have not read Caputo (and while I do not consider Derrida's writing to be religious text!), there is something that Derrida's writing appears to have in common with mystical thought, the tone (sometimes seemingly out of place) of the prophetic-- at least one comes away with the impression that this is a man fond of making predictions. I am referring to Derrida's use of the future perfect tense. Why would Derrida continually use and emphasize his use of this peculiar, asymmetrical tense ("will have been") that wedges open presence and the orderly succession of "present" moments (or past, present, future as extended present as in the Augustinian sense of time)? He is being prophetic, or he is, if you like, placing some significant bets. A risky endeavor. And this is where Derrida does, in his whole business of being (or predicting having-been) Derrida, seem to piggyback on the whole thought of the "Messianic Age", not in the manner of an apostle but in the manner of a patient scribe, who at the same time seems to sometimes not know what he is writing, because he seems to be striving to say something that cannot be said in his life but only on the other side of time's completion. This comes with much that is untimely or sounds impatient with contemporary thought-- or with time itself.

The institutionalizing of "Derridean thought" with its centers and temporal rulers then obviously is not "in the spirit" of Derrida. Leigh, you refer to work that Caputo has done as "eminently useful to anyone who is interested in the way that human disposition toward the future is figured"-- I think that this is the crux of the issue of Derrida scholarship, as well as the issue of what it means to read or reiterate Derrida, "teleologically", strategically. Taking our time of course, as well as a bit of future time.

John said...

I hope that my comment is not just more "Derridaology". I believe that Derrida's preoccupation with the future, and the continual deferral in his text, is a basic feature of his thought and is both a weakness and a strength. Having said that, there is much in Derrida scholarship that does not fit into even this open-ended frame.

Brunson said...

Better late than never, I hope - this article makes an interesting point about the (perhaps accidental) collusion of critical theory and the professionalization of graduate students:

"And this new canon of critical theory inaugurates a pattern of constant innovation, putting the old canons in perpetual crisis, and engendering a rampant particularization in research interests. The fact is that many graduate students, in this type of seminar, shoulder a new burden of particularization through highly independent research (a.k.a. work) in the form of seminar papers, which can be passed along swiftly to conference presentations or publication. This is happening not only because graduate students are haunted by the job market, but because critical methodologies challenge the very project of top-down teaching in the first place. Despite the enormous contribution of critical theory and its absolute necessity, the fact should be acknowledged that—better than anything else—critical theory produces “creative” research efficiently. This creative production meshes ideally with the logic of preprofessionalism."