Derridalogy: A Remark

Having finished about half of Alex Thomson’s Deconstruction and Democracy: Derrida’s Politics of Friendship this afternoon, I got distracted from the actual content of the book – a rather dry, even if erudite, summary of Derrida’s discussion of “democracy” – and realized that I am growing increasingly disappointed with the state of what one might label “derridalogy” [copyright – Perverse Egalitarianism] as opposed to “Derrida Studies” primarily for a following reason: books and articles dedicated to Derrida’s philosophy that are coming out in the recent years (and, of course, I haven’t read them all but, after having finished Bayard’s awesome book in one sitting, I can discuss them nonetheless in their totality) are strangely of two main types:

exegetical derridalogy – mainly collections of quotations on a specific topic (Derrida on Democracy, Derrida on Apple Pies, Derrida on Justice type of things) tied together by a sort of an argument but not really; although Caputo was doing this for a while, and this genre did not invent using abbreviations, it’s becoming more and more scholastic to the extend that a ‘good’ book of such type prides itself on identifying more and more obscure Derridean references to the chosen theme: “As Derrida once mentioned while he was walking down the street and talking to me, deconstruction is like a long long smoke break but without cigarettes and not really a break but also… etc etc.” This clearly is derridalogy because the aura of the publications is precisely a kind of perverse worship of the Master and his every word. At best, these works – like the one by Alex Thomson, although I haven’t given up yet, maybe it’ll get somewhere beyond the simple recitation of Derridean texts (not likely, according to this review I just found) – serve as great concordances thus presenting one not with a philosophical work but with a kind of philosophical version of nerdy collection of rare Derrida comics.

performative derridalogy – mainly attempts to be like Derrida, that is, the style is outwardly an imitation of the worst Derridean characteristics (if Derrida’s corpus can be perceived as having “ups” and “downs” then these are mostly “downs” – and, yes, I know it sounds pretentious to pronounce judgment on the great Master with such apparent haste, but I find such adorable protests from fans of the Master to be psychologically quite disturbing as I consider myself to be very intriguied by Derrida’s ideas without the need to constantly defend him). Leo Lawlor’s last textual adventure is a good example of such attempts at derridalogy – sounding like Derrida does not really make any sense because when it was Derrida himself doing “his thing” then at least people got some sort of libidinal satisfaction from being not just confused, but confused by the man himself. Take, for example, Zizek – whom I always enjoy reading, regardless of my position on the discussed topics – if your regular homeless guy rambled on and on, spitting and nervously wiping his nose, you’d give him a buck and run away, but when Zizek takes a stand, you look past these hygienic and intellectual excesses and write things down in your cool leather-covered (‘so-graduate-student’) notebook. That is, Derrida is forgiven his “downs” because his “ups” are quite exhilaratingly good – and no one wants to pay to see “Derrida Cover Band” when there’s still plenty of Derrida books and materials around.

What both of these form of derridalogy have in common is the use of the proper name “derrida” interchangeably with the corpus of writings by a person named Derrida – not to go all Derridean here – but this is the assumption well worth examining: Derrida’s writing career spans over approximately 40 years, is it really fair to try to come up with even one “theme” that runs through his oeuvre, or try to present a kind of “Philosophy of Derrida” that would actually be an exposition of Derrida’s texts as opposed to a kind of philosophical reading of his works without any solid reference to the “authorial intention”? Why is this “authorial intention” even around these days?

Take Thomson’s discussion of “democracy” and “deconstruction” – it’s not about concepts such as “democracy” and “deconstruction,” it’s about what Derrida wrote about these concepts. “This is typical continental tradition,” you might say – No, it isn’t. This is typical secondary literature that puts itself forward as philosophy – there is nothing philosophical about collecting appropriate quotations! If Derrida’s works were available in an electronic form, a simple computer search would suffice. Actually, I have to say that Thomson’s book, as I understand it, is better than some other examples in that it does put the chosen quotations together into a supposedly consistent Derridean position on the matter (“What Would Derrida Say”) even if with a touch of annoying admiration and lack of critical assessment. Let me give you an example:

Thomson’s defense of the Master’s intentional refusal to address actual political regimes (of democracy or otherwise) is presented to us in a following way – “until we have come to terms with the concept and ideal of democracy, how could we criticize any particular liberal democratic state?” (31) – thus Derrida is first and foremost concerned with the “concept” and only than with reality of democracy. This sounds very proper and not very Derridean at all – the correlation between “theory” and “practice” is thus presented to us as something very simple and unidirectional: come up with a concept, understand what “democracy” really means as an idea and than apply your theoretical knowledge to particular states. Really? Is that how simple things are? Is that what Derrida is really doing in Politics of Friendship? But let’s give Thomson this one and accept his explanation – indeed, we say, Derrida’s silence on the actual democratic states is justifiable because he is ever so busy trying to think (about) the concept of democracy first. Where does Derrida’s “thinking the concept” come from? Where does he begin his discussion? It never really crosses Thomson’s mind to raise a very basic question in reading the first sections of Derrida’s Politics of Friendship: are we talking about “friendship” and “democracy” as Aristotle (for example) understands them or are we talking about “friendship” and “democracy” in general? Derrida’s discussion of friendship is a thought-provoking reading of classical texts on the issue, Thomson’s reading of Derrida’s reading is a neat summary without real engagement with those thoughts that are being provoked. His affected summary of what Derrida has to say about the concept of democracy misses the essential problem not only of “theory” and “practice” issue, but a more basic problem: Derrida’s construction of the concept of democracy (and responsibility for that matter) as ambiguous, unstable, aporetic is precisely that, a construction and thus his successful deconstruction of his own construction appears to be nothing but a cool magic trick that, if this was really the case with Derrida’s discussion of democracy, would only amuse the faithful… But that’s a different topic altogether – time to go home…

7 thoughts on “Derridalogy: A Remark

  1. Good point. It would be a better title, wouldn’t it? [Moment of self-doubt followed by a painful realization] Maybe I am not as smart as I think I am… I suppose that “Of” would imply more effort on my part as opposed to just writing things down, but then again I don’t think there’s much effort involved in this blog anyway, so I’m not sure what to say here…

  2. Nice post. don’t worry you’re still on the top of my pretentious list, even with the gaffe of leaving out the “Of,” or was that merely to indicate the black hole of Derridalogy? I don’t even know what that means. Anyway, speaking of Derridalogy, while cleaning out my desk I recently came across a review of Gideon Ofrat’s The Jewish Derrida in an issue of Shofar from back in 2002–in which Ofrat argues that Derrida can’t be fully understood without considering the Jewish dimension of his work–that argued it seemed like what Ofrat did simply amounted to a search/find function like we use in Microsoft Word to find words like “jew,” “talith” and “circumcision” etc. The reviewer also said something to the effect that it was “uncritical hagiographic apologist deconstruction.” Yikes, it wasn’t the greatest book, but it wasn’t the worst, it would have been better to broach broader questions about Judaism and deconstruction rather than the tired old tropes of the wandering Jew and such.

    I don’t know, one could certainly find this type of “logy” in lots of secondary lit. I went to a Levinas conference and found much of the presentations far too filled with adulation and praise rather than any sort of critical engagement with Levinas’s corpus. In fact, one speaker ended his paper with what he claimed as the ultimate “Levinasian political statement” which was “Let’s just be friends.” I kid you not, as if Levinas could (or should) be reduced to such crass Pollyana/Barney idealism.

  3. I think “uncritical hagiographic apologist” approach is a good definition of derridalogy – I agree with you that some of the general tendencies of the secondary lit are the ones I ascribe to derridalogy, but there’s also something quite unique about the secondary lit on Derrida, isn’t there? I haven’t seen anything like this even in highly hagiographic and uncritical books about Kant or Hegel or Heidegger – I mean there’s plenty of “citation guides” there as well, but there’s a certain dimension to Derrida literature that simply evoked a kind of description that can be labeled “derridalogy”…

    BTW, if you google “derridalogy” – we’ll be the only reference, that’s #2 (#1 being “Craptastic Academic Drek”)

  4. Pingback: No sniveller, or tea-drinking poet, no puny clawback or prude, is Walt Whitman! « The Edge of the American West

  5. Leo Lawlor’s last textual adventure is a good example of such attempts at derridalogy

    You talking about his animals book? I thought it got much better toward the end, but the globalization vs. mondalization discussion that opened it? Meh…

  6. I am – honestly, I feel the need to re-read that book again, partly because I thought it was just outright awful first time around and because I know he’s planning another one with an equally ridiculous title on Deleuze. I think this time around I could see the light, but I seriously doubt it – my main beef was the style that made reading almost impossible, the ideas about animals weren’t so bad, I thought, but also mostly examples of exegetical derridalogy…

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