Derrida and the Professors.

In his famous pronouncement against the future professors who will inevitably take interest in his journals, Kierkegaard writes:


That I shall acquire a certain renown, surely not even my bitterest enemy will deny. But I begin now to wonder whether I shan’t become famous in a genre quite different from the one I had envisaged, whether I shan’t become famous as a naturalist, in that I have made discoveries or at least delivered a very considerable contribution to the natural history of parasites. The parasites I have in mind are priests and professors, these greedy and virulently self-reproductive parasites which even have the shamelessness (which is more than other parasites have) to want to be of service to those they live off. (XI 2 A 277)

Not very nice, yet ultimately a prophetic observation that is cited by professors as a proof of the greatness of their subject, cited sometimes with a kind of self-depreciation that is considered to be a good enough penance for the thankless job of studying such an ungrateful thinker – here we are editing, collecting, and publishing his multiple journals, essays and books, and yet he dares to accuse us of being parasites and useless idlers! However abusive Kierkegaard is, especially at the end of his life, the image of a parasite is hard to dismiss in light of all the secondary literature on Kierkegaard…  Take the old discussion of the status of the secondary literature – is it really fair to the thinker to write a commentary after commentary when he himself explicitly mocks the idea and takes it to be a gross misrepresentation of his work? On one hand, one could claim that the very title of an “expert” on Kierkegaard should be so ironic and disconcerting that various reports of suicides among Kierkegaard professors should be a norm in the news. On the other hand, so what if Kierkegaard ridiculed his future experts – we don’t have to listen to his judgments, because he clearly wanted to be studied, wanted to be the object of future admiration and here is the proof from his writings etc etc. Think about someone closer to our time, someone like Derrida – can we think of his “disciples” as betraying the thought of the Master by producing a stream of secondary literature I have previously described as “derridalogy”?

Having continuously expressed my frustration with the present state of derridalogy, I have thought about the strange (even if expected) failure of Derrida’s writings to produce any sort of considerable change in the established philosophical landscape – a rather ambitious and possibly groundless generalization on my part – despite the mantras of derridalogists about how “it will never be the same” after the great Master’s brave challenge to the philosophical establishment. Having read Derrida for some considerable time now, I am ready to at least raise the question: 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), have ultimately failed to make its essential points stick? Is there “Derrida to come” as the new generation of those who will read him as yet another “dead white male” will come to discover his truly thought-provoking observations? I am aware of the great temptation of being extremely serious and pretentious here with these questions and I am even not going to pretend to resist this temptation.

The basic question, I think, is the following: was it ultimately Derrida’s own fault that his very best commentators today are people like John Caputo who, being a great scholar and summarizer that he is, in the end lacks his own take on philosophy (have you read his books like Against Ethics – boring is a word too weak to describe the experience) and can only pride himself at knowing all that Derrida said, wrote and even thought? The great encyclopedists like Caputo and Lawlor are the gods of the graduate students precisely because, despite the obvious fact that they could have become the summarizers of any other philosopher, but have chosen this one, they give us a model of a scholastic expert in the texts of Derrida, in the developments and turns of his thought, without the awareness of the fact that Derrida himself, at least one of the infinite number of Derridas, with all his raging about the “author” and the “archive” would probably not approve of such orthodoxy. But then again who really cares about what Derrida would and would not approve of? That is the crux of the matter for me, and that is what is making me ask all these somewhat silly questions – did Derrida ultimately fail to take himself, his very self, out of the picture in order to allow his thought to move in various directions he thought it was suppose to be moving? is he not guilty of being too consistent, too continuous, too organizing (“despite the appearances, I have always thought about X as being my only concern” kind of expressions)?

Take, for example, a phrase like “deconstruction is justice” in “Force of Law” – what is your traditional derradalogical approach to such a “strange” thought? Well, first we need to contextualize this phrase and make sure we understand what Derrida meant to say here and compare this meaning with meanings from other essays, books, personal communications etc etc. Second, on the basis of such contextualization we will propose a “correct reading” and will write about how this phrase should not be read. Third, we will launch into some sort of performative derridalogical demonstration of how such statement could be applied and where Derrida would want us to take it. This scheme is not different from any traditional approach to interpretation – it goes about its interpretative business as if no questions of authorial intention, the role of the author and the context, the play of signification and many other questions were ever raised, as if reading Derrida is the same as reading Plato. Now this is the story of Derrida’s “controversial statements” – people accuse him of being either non-sensical or irresponsible, he (or his lieutenants) comes out and explains what he “meant” to say and how his meaning should be considered the authoritative source of interpretation in this case because, after all, he said this and that etc etc… In the end, it’s the same desire for consistency and respectability that is the virtue of the professors – was Derrida just an “assistant professor” as Kierkegaard called the illustrious Hegelians of his time? I don’t think so, but there’s a certain tendency in the recent derridalogy to create a scholastic version of “philosophy of Derrida”…

What does it mean to be a good Derridean scholar these days? Mostly, it involves being familiar with Derrida’s corpus, being aware of all the small and insignificant essays he published here and there, being aware of all the places where he addressed this or that idea – this is an old rant of mine and I keep coming back to it because I feel as if there’s something unresolved here: it is considered a good sign if a scholar knows his subject well, yet the complete lack of interesting new books on Derrida’s thought is puzzling and confusing. Where is the kind of book that would create even a resemblance of the effect of Of Grammatology? Why am I not excited to see Michael Naas’s new book on Derrida or even slightly intrigued by the title of Martin Hagglund’s book? Well, because I heard Hagglund speak and he’s a bore, so I don’t expect the book to be an exciting read, and because I’ve been disappointed in books on Derrida for some time now and I wonder if the professors took a firm hold of him and would not let go until some new sexier figure comes to their attention?

To end this rant with a citation from “early” Lawlor:

Even if the type of deconstruction popularized by Derrida ultimately subverts many if not all of the principles of traditional hermeneutics, the first issue in any reading is understanding. To understand a text, especially a text as complex as that of Derrida, one must pay careful attention to context, to authorial intention; one must be sensitive to allusion and images used in concept development. (Philosophy Today, 42:2 [Summer 1998], 207)

There you go then, professors are firmly in charge…

12 thoughts on “Derrida and the Professors.

  1. Where is the kind of book that would create even a resemblance of the effect of Of Grammatology?

    Just a quick thought and no doubt this is a fair question, but is it fair to expect this of the secondary literature? I mean I know that Caputo, Lawlor, and Mark C Taylor have all made use (and staked their careers on) of Derrida and deconstruction in their works, which largely read like commentaries on Derrida rather than stand alone works. But if you mean to ask this question of say, a student of Derrida, then Malabou strikes me as someone who is producing some highly original work, same in the case of Badiou’s student Queintin Meillassoux.

    You are right though, there is something in Derrida that produces a certain type of monotonous secondary literature.

  2. You’re right, it’s probably not fair but then again we’ve come to expect the fact that secondary literature is going to be… well, secondary and we use it as such, at least I do, you know? It’s not about really reading it or enjoying it, it’s about seeing “what’s new” and checking out the bibliography to make sure you’re not missing some major “debate” – sad…

    Malabou’s clearly very original and certainly defies the label of “Derrida’s student” and even her book on Hegel is certainly not just “secondary lit” but then again my post was mostly a rant and the beauty of a rant is its lack of rhyme or reason…

  3. Right, Malabou may just defy the label of secondary because it stands alone as a piece of philosophical work I think, unlike Caputo’s derivative drivel. But Malabou sees herself as somehow in the “tradition” of Derrida and deconstruction I think, no?

    Regardless, all of this points to one question: what the hell are we doing?

  4. Why does Derrida bring out the inner professor? He’s already a commentator, so the commentators are commentators on a commentator. And his commentaries read like a Phd exam, Plato, Descartes, Hegel, Aristotle, Kant, Rousseau . . . In fact, that would be amusing. Give a Phd exam only on Derrida’s commentaries. You could finish it with “the impossibility of the possibility of giving or taking a Phd exam.”

  5. Good point. However, I don’t think Derrida’s commentaries are as boring as some of the derridalogical treatises – at least not all of them, some are quite interesting… I’m not really against a commentary per se, I’m just surprised that such a commentator (even if that’s all Derrida does which I don’t think is the case) would produce so little actual exciting commentary – maybe I’m just reading the wrong authors or asking too much? If Derrida comments, and others comment on comments and all of this sort of unleashes a great madness of commentaries – why is it so dull? I mean rebelliousness used to be fun, challenging the establishment caused embarrassment and passions were high. Derrida used to be accused of being a charlatan and, although I think it was absolutely unjustified, at least, it was kind of exciting, you know? He was sort of the only “bad boy” of philosophy (despite being actually a very “good boy” in reality) – that’s better than dull…

  6. My impression of Derrida is that he’s been applying the same formula as he used in Speech and Phenomena throughout the rest of his works, so that all you’d need to do is read S&P and you understand Derrida. He’s not the kind of author who inspires the need to read secondary literature, like Hegel or Plato. I don’t read The Gift of Death and get the sense “this is so confusing, let’s see what the commentators have to say.”

  7. I think one of the measures of a great philosopher is how profitable it is for very good philosophers to enter into conversation with them.

    I mean “conversation” in the sense that Habermas defends in the intro to “Philosophical Discourses of Modernity.” Habermas (if I remember right) says he is not going to just slavishly do exegesis, which can descend into hagiography (bad tendency of continental philosophy) or logic games (bad tendency of analytic philosophy) that have no connection to the pursuit of wisdom. Seeing what you can actually learn from a historical thinker might involve readings that are bad from a purely exegetical, historical, or hagiographic point of view.

    For example, Schopenhauer is in some sense an amazing extended commentary on Kant. But plenty of Kant scholars can tear him apart for getting the master wrong. Likewise with Strawson’s very good book. As a piece of pure exegesis it is lacking (see Allison), but by engaging with Kant in a more Habermasian way, Strawson was able to do some very, very good philosophy, much more interesting and philosophically helpful than Guyer or Allison’s better exegesis.

    So I think Emelianov’s point has legs. The only reason (in my unpopular view) Quine is rightly regarded as a great philosopher is that so many other very good to great philosophers (Goldman, Wilson, Putnam, Stich, etc.) produced such interesting and helpful things by their engagement with him.

    So here’s a question? How do the great continental thinkers of 1968 stack up here? My impression is that Foucault smashes Derrida in this regard as does (more recently) Deleuze. If this is true, why is it the case? It could just be for contingently sociological reasons that history may correct. Any thoughts?

    Two final provisos- (1) Habermasian conversation does not work if the person is not charitable. Beating up on Kant for not having read Quine (as Bennett came perilously close to doing in his otherwise very helpful commentaries) is not bad because it is anachronistic, but because it is anachronistic and uncharitable. (2) Hagiography and logic chopping are easier to do with minimal (publishable) competence than Habermasian conversation. This creates strong selective pressure for it to be the norm in our institutional setting (see Emelianov’s earlier post about composing versus performing philosophy- hagiography and consistency driven exegesis are canonical ways to perform, whereas Habermasian conversation uses great philosophers to compose?). I doubt it could be otherwise.

  8. Excellent post… and I am quite sympathetic with your complaints about the current state of secondary lit on Derrida. Just fyi, I linked to your post on my blog here. I hope I didn’t misrepresent you… but if I did, apologies in advance.

  9. Pingback: anotherpanacea › Interpretation

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