Sunday, July 24, 2005

Derrida (2002)

When famed philosopher Jacques Derrida died last year, numerous academics blew a collective gasket over the NYTimes' "disrespectful" obituary to the man. There were countless angry letters to the editor and eventually a webpage was set up to collect these angry letters to the editor. What was funny about the response, aside from the fact that the letter-writers were outraged that Derrida had been, quite accurately, called an "abstruse theorist", was that academics like Judith Butler suddenly seemed to have decided that something should be sacred.

Derrida was never quite understood in the United States, even while he became a celebrity here. Academic conservatives made him out to be a wild-eyed radical who wanted to overturn all of our ideas of truth and our society along with them, an appraisal they seem to make of everyone to the left of the Michigan Militia. Academic leftists, for their part, saw his work as a weapon for use in the idiotic culture wars, or even worse, tried to sell him as an Einsteinian genius who taught us that everything we knew about language was wrong. The documentary in question is actually hyped with the question: "What if someone came along who changed not the way you think about everything, but everything about the way you think?" Which is an interesting prospect, but one that Derrida could have delivered on about as quickly as he could have performed brain surgery. Derrida was an accomplished footnote to Heidegger, but not an earth-shaking one. Perhaps it is best to see his work as the French do; a worthy response to structuralism (remember that America discovered structuralism and post-structuralism in the same year) and an interesting take on some of the problems of phenomenology and linguistics, but nothing too terribly life-altering. American academics seem to find this sort of stuff to be life-altering, but mostly because they seem to be constantly looking for things to alter their lives.

But, the big question about Derrida has always been whether or not he was a bullshit artist. Certainly, his work was more firmly rooted in the western philosophical tradition than his detractors have been willing to admit. The problem is that too much of it boils down to : "This thing that I am sitting on is defined as a chair; therefore the thing that I am writing with is 'non-chair'." Fine, but so what? And what about terms that have no logical "other"? Ultimately, any documentary on the man has to explain why we, the viewers, should care one way or the other about him.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers assume that we're already part of the deconstruction cult and so make little effort to explain what deconstruction is, or why anyone should care about it. In fact, they decide that we'd rather get to watch Derrida make his breakfast in long, loving takes. It is certainly admirable that Derrida, the man, spends so much time trying to prove that Derrida, the documentary, can never be accurate. Some of the most amusing bits in the film come when the filmmakers try to get the prickly old man to say anything substantive about himself or his ideas. Sadly though, they ultimately fail.

Leslie Fiedler said that Derrida was a mensch, and so I take that to be true. Also, he was never the anti-western radical he's been made out to be. The problem with Derrida the man is that you have to understand Plato, Aristotle and Heidegger before you read his work, but when you do understand them, you're not too terribly impressed with Derrida. The problem with Derrida the documentary is that it assumes we'd much rather skip over all of that and get to watching the man make his breakfast or walk down the sidewalk. After about an hour of this, I went for the "other" option and took a nap.


W. S. Cross said...

Well, who can resist a post about Derrida? I sometimes wonder if anyone has EVER clicked through the link on Beyond You & Me for "Deconstruction"? And will the name Paul de Man mean anything to readers of the book?

I don't have any answers, just thinking out loud.

Rufus said...

I'm pretty sure I've clicked it. Not surprisingly, Paul de Man was not mentioned in the documentary.

W. S. Cross said...

No, I'm sure not. De Man is still radioactive after the exposure of his wartime collaboration. Interestingly, many of his supporters refuse to acknowledge the anti-Semitism of those writings, perhaps because de Man was so personally charming and free of the usual prejudices in conversation (unlike some of the Old Blues).

I think it would be better to concede that he collaborated, as perhaps a majority of those in occupied Europe did, and make the case that his personal history does not impact on his intellectual and literary contributions, which are extensive in my opinion.

Rufus said...

I've only read a few of his essays; they were pretty good, but I can't say I remember what they were on. Since my dissertation is on romanticism, I suppose I'll probably end up reading more.

Actually, I'm happy as a clam to find out how beloved Northrop Frye is at the University of Toronto. I realize that he taught there, but it's still so nice to walk into a bookstore and see an entire shelf of his books and correspondence! I feel like a lot of the best literary criticism got swept out the door with the wave of deconstruction. It's a shame too. I'd kill to take a seminar on Auerbach.

As for the Nazis... well, we still read Heidegger. I just wish that some of these ex-collaborationists, or ex-Nazis, or ex- whatever would have written some reflections on their experiences. It would have been fascinating to find out how de Man went from writing anti-semitism to collaborating for much of his career with a devout Jew.

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