Derrida, Derrida, Etc.: The philosopher as king

R. A. Hettinga
Thu, 23 Jan 2003 11:46:37 -0500

Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2003 / 20 Shevat, 5762

Mark Goldblatt

Derrida, Derrida, Etc.: The philosopher as king | Zeitgeist Films, distributor of the
documentary Derrida , currently in limited release in select cities across
the country, poses the following rhetorical question on its promotional
website: What if you could watch Socrates, on film, rehearsing his Socratic
dialogues? The insinuation, of course, is that Jacques Derrida, the
contemporary French thinker sometimes called the "father of deconstruction"
deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the ancient Greek thinker
sometimes called the "father of philosophy." This is true only insofar as a
firecracker and a hydrogen bomb both go pop. Otherwise, the comparison is

Indeed, the critical point to be borne in mind with regards to Derrida -
the man who is the subject of the movie - is that he is not now, nor has he
ever been, a philosopher in any recognizable sense of the word, nor even a
trafficker in significant ideas; he is rather a intellectual con artist, a
polysyllabic grifter who has duped roughly half the humanities professors
in the United States - a species whose gullibility ranks them somewhere
between nine-year-old boys listening to spooky campfire stories and
blissful puppies chasing after nonexistent sticks - into believing that
postmodernism has an underlying theoretical rationale. History will
remember Derrida, and it surely will, not for what he himself has said but
for what his revered status says about us.

Whether history will remember Derrida , the movie, is another question. I
suspect it will, though not in the way the filmmakers intended. I can just
about hear the peals of laughter, decades hence, from stoned art-house
audiences as Derrida is surrounded by fawning New York University graduate
students telling him how much clearer his writing has become after
listening to his double-talk in person . . . or when he insists "since I am
a philosopher, I must be rigorous with what I say" - before launching into
another free-associative tinseling of the question he's just been asked . .
. or as directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman zoom in on the great
man getting his hair trimmed or picking out a sports jacket, or buttering
his morning bagel.

The high point of the film, judging from the comments of several notable
reviewers, comes halfway through and consists of Derrida's five-minute
meditation on the concept of love. After a token demurral and his customary
song and dance about the difficulty of the topic - including the
self-contradictory howler "I'm incapable of generalities" - Derrida hones
in on the dilemma of whether love consists of our being drawn to the
"singularity" of another person or to a set of specific qualities possessed
by the person we love. In other words, do I love you for your essential
you-ness or for the sum of characteristics I associate with you? He
provides no answer, naturally. But, at the screening I attended, as Derrida
wound down his discourse, an audible gasp rose from the sparse crowd in the

This is the danger of dilettantism - even a mundane bit of business will
strike the dilettante as a sudden revelation since he possesses only a
cursory acquaintance with subject matter. Derrida, in this case, is merely
reiterating the ancient Aristotelian distinction between substance (the
underlying essence of a thing) and accidents (the perceptible qualities of
a thing attached to, but separable from, its essence). Aristotle utilized
the substance-accidents distinction to account for the reality of identity
in a world in constant flux. You can step in the same river twice,
according to the Aristotelian view; the accidents change, but the substance
of the river endures. Thus, the question Derrida poses with regards to the
concept of love amounts to asking whether we love a substantial expression
of human nature (the "singularity" of a person) or merely a collection of
pleasing accidents (his or her apparent qualities). Intriguing? Maybe.
Original? Please. By comparison, Thomas Aquinas invoked the theory of
substance and accidents in the doctrine of transubstantiation to explicate
the Eucharistic sacrament: The accidents of the bread and wine - their
textures, their smells, their tastes - remain, but the substances in which
these inhere are miraculously translated into the actual body and blood of

If Derrida is a fraud, and he most definitely is, how has he managed to
hoodwink so many highly credentialed academics, especially those trained in
literary criticism, art history, film studies, psychology, sociology,
linguistics, and (lately) legal theory? In this regard, it should be noted
that his influence among professional philosophers has been minimal. When
Derrida was awarded an honorary degree from Cambridge University in 1992,
20 of the world's most-prominent philosophers - including W. V. Quine and
Ruth Barcan Marcus - signed a letter of protest which is worth quoting at

M. Derrida describes himself as a philosopher, and his writings do indeed
bear some marks of writings in that discipline. Their influence, however,
has been to a striking degree almost entirely outside philosophy. . . . In
the eyes of philosophers, and certainly those working in leading
departments of philosophy throughout the world, M. Derrida's work does not
meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor. . . . M. Derrida seems to us
to have come close to making a career out of what we regard as translating
into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the
Dadaists. . . . Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for
embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the
widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more
than an object of ridicule.

The fact that Derrida's influence is least felt in the very discipline he
claims to practice testifies to the ascendancy of dilettantism in the
humanities. Nevertheless, there are other, more cynical, reasons for his
high-standing. To glimpse these, however, a bit of background on
deconstruction is in order.

Deconstruction is a theoretical approach to texts that gained a brief
cachet among leftist intellectuals in France in the late 1960s and soon
thereafter, through the writings of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Paul
de Man, and especially Derrida, found a lasting niche in literature and
social-science departments on American campuses. Despite its French
popularizers, deconstruction is actually the bastard child of American New
Criticism of the 1930s and 40s - in particular, the principle that the
meaning of a text is not controlled by the artist's intention. (The belief
that the author controls the meaning is called the Intentional Fallacy.)
The New Critics held that a text, once created, should be divorced from
what's known of its creator, and its meaning subsequently negotiated, as it
were disembodied, by its critical audience. Yet the New Critics never
doubted that a text was held together by a "voice," perhaps non-authorial
but still a unified presence, or that the text possessed a set of coherent
meanings, or that it would sustain certain meanings and contradict others.

The deconstructionist wrinkle on New Criticism was the denial that a
coherent meaning could ever be had. On the contrary, every reading was a
misreading since language is always self-contradictory, unbound by any
unified voice; hence, all efforts to pin down a meaning are doomed from the
start. From such premises flows the practice of deconstruction - which
amounts to teasing out secondary and tertiary senses of individual lines,
words, or even syllables to show how a text contradicts what it seems
clearly to mean.

For example, if I assert that my first name is Mark, the deconstructionist
would call into question that claim. He might point out that, on the day I
was born, before I was ever "Mark," I was "Baby Goldblatt" - thus the claim
that my first name is Mark, in a temporal sense, is false. He might also
note that, in terms of social priority, "Goldblatt" is the name by which
I'm known at the payroll department at my college, and the name by which my
students address me. The deconstructionist might then mention that the word
"Mark," if stripped of its nominative sense, connotes a sign by which
ownership is claimed - i.e., to make one's mark . It is thus a territorial
signifier, perhaps intended by me to carve out a political space in which I
can conduct my relationships on a familiar basis; claiming it as my "first"
name is thus inevitably a political act.

If this strikes you as "rigorous" thinking, then you, too, can be a
humanities professor. Still, such foolishness has a decided upside in
academia. When your goal is to deconstruct rather than read - that is, to
hunt down internal contradictions rather than to reconstruct what a text
means - then you can set aside the logic of observation and inference and
take up word play to show how every previous critic has been wrong . . . or
if not exactly wrong, since the very notion of being wrong no longer makes
sense, then at least how every previous critic's own political agenda lurks
behind what he perceived as the plain meaning of the text.

But why not just deal with the text explicitly?

There are three main reasons, each of them utilitarian:

First, and most obviously, deconstruction is less taxing than traditional
close reading. The latter demands strict methodologies and background
research - and even then it's tough to come up with an original angle on,
say, Shakespeare's Hamlet . Critics have been going at that thing for over
three centuries. But if I can sidestep Shakespeare and tap into Goldblatt's
Hamlet - that is, the infinite universe of subtextual contradictions
ascribed, for the sake of convenience, to Shakespeare but which I alone
perceive - then I'm practically home-free. "To be or not to be" . . . I
mean, what couldn't that mean? Now all I've got to do is whip up a glaze of
jargon, so that what I'm saying sounds "rigorous" rather than just plain
silly, and start churning out those scholarly monographs.

Second, deconstruction means never having to say you're sorry. In 1988,
five years after his death, the deconstructionist critic Paul de Man's
early writings surfaced - including an essay he'd penned in 1940, while
living in Belgium, for the pro-Nazi newspaper Le Soir . In it, de Man
wrote: "One can thus see that a solution to the Jewish problem that would
lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not
have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences." Derrida
rushed to his deceased friend's defense, deconstructing de Man's essay to
show how he wasn't really saying anything bad about the Jews.

Third, and most importantly, deconstruction carries a distinct political
advantage for the intellectual Left. When words no longer retain their
common sense meanings, then any statement of truth becomes suspect. ( Is
Mark my first name?) What could be handier, if you can't make a reasonable
case for what you believe, than a theory which seems to undermine reason
itself and thereby relativizes all knowledge? Thus, for example, if you're
a multiculturalist, you can argue - against historical evidence - that
Greek philosophy is derived from sub-Saharan Africa; or if you're a
feminist, you can argue - against biological evidence - that gender is
entirely socially constructed; or if you're a Marxist, you can argue -
against experiential evidence - that socialism is compatible with
individual rights.

Et cetera.

As a documentary, Derrida tells us little worth knowing about a silly
Frenchman named Jacques Derrida. The fact that such a film exists, however,
tells us much worth knowing about ourselves.

JWR contributor Mark Goldblatt' teaches at SUNY's Fashion Institute of
Technology. His new novel is A Africa Speaks. Comment by clicking here.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto:>
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44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'