|Posted on Tuesday, October 12, 2004 - 01:01 pm: |
Once upon a time, a thinker came up with a whole new way of seeing the world. What others had taken to be the center was shown to be off-center. What others had relied upon as eternal truths were proven to give the lie to themselves. All the verities of science, faith, ethics, even language were called into question. It was new thought, and it wasn't easy to grasp. But it was easy to attack. The thinker was branded a heretic and hounded by detractors, though he kept always a small group of disciples eager to understand this difficult new thought. Finally, when he died, those whose power he had challenged practically danced on his grave. They dismissed his thought--safe enough, now that he was dead--and castigated him in hateful obituaries.
That thinker was Jacques Derrida, who died Friday, October 8th, 2004, following a long battle with pancreatic cancer.
In the New York Times for October 10th, Jonathan Kandell characterizes Derrida as "abstruse" and "murky," with "turgid and baffling" prose. To the extent that Derrida is permitted any positive traits, these are portrayed as "cultivated," as is the case with his "charisma and mystery."
Kandell notes that Derrida's close friend, Paul de Man, was revealed after his own death to have been a Nazi collaborator and a possible anti-Semite. Kandell notes that when the press and academics seemed to insist that he drop his other business and castigate his dead friend and fascism in general, Derrida declined. Kandell has time to cast aspersions at Derrida, but no time, apparently, to question the usefulness of acceding to the demands of people who cry out to have their self-righteousness propped up through a betrayal of friendship.
Repeatedly throughout his life, Derrida declined to summarize briefly what his life's-work meant. He had introduced the world to "deconstruction," and only a handful seemed to understand it (though a triple-handful tried to use it). But many more wanted to understand it. Not badly enough to read what Derrida had written, and to read it often enough and patiently enough to get it. But badly enough to insist that Derrida reduce forty books and twenty years of work into a thirty-second soundbite. For refusing to do this, for saying that any answer he gave would be personally unsatisfying, Derrida earned the suspicions of the press. They began to say he didn't really know what he was talking about. After all, if a complex system of philosophy cannot be reduced to two or three radiogenic sentences, then perhaps we're dealing with a naked emperor.
Never mind that Barbara Johnson and Gayatri Spivak and a host of others read Derrida's work and understood it, were persuaded by it, sought to advance and test it. If it doesn't fit on a postcard, it just isn't a good idea. So the opinion-makers decided; and so it was written.
These are the half-sharp. They are our journalists, our opinion leaders, our nay-saying academics. They make decisions for us because we are too stupid to make decisions for ourselves. They take upon themselves the mantle of semi-intellectual leadership, translating the world for us daily so that we don't have to go through the painful process of thinking for ourselves. Their stock in trade is information. They are informed. This does not mean they are educated.
The half-sharp are sharp enough to turn a phrase, but not quite sharp enough to understand one, unless it is one they have seen several times before. They are sharp enough to apply labels, but not quite sharp enough to investigate categories. Most of all, as the makers of opinion, they are sharp enough to tell you what you think, but not quite sharp enough to listen to you when you speak.
Enough of this. The books are out there. The excerpts are anthologized all over the place. Start with "Plato's Pharmacy." You'll understand it because you're sharper than the half-sharp. And you'll think about it afterwards. You may not accept Derrida's conclusions, but you'll be the first kid on your block to have read him, and that should count for something. And along the way, you'll have some fun. Derrida had a fantastic sense of humor and a genuine warmth. His work is filled with puns and quips. For those who had the patience and the imagination, he made philosophy fun to read. And he tried to shake the foundations of some of the most entrenched mistakes Western culture has made. That's what Derrida gave us. And he deserved a hell of a lot better from us than he received.
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|Posted on Sunday, November 14, 2004 - 05:09 pm: |
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|Posted on Thursday, November 18, 2004 - 02:55 pm: |
For anyone interested, the recent Locus contains reflections on the work of Jacques Derrida by both Samuel Delany and Bruce Sterling. Delany reveals his academic creds in a nuanced and somewhat evasive account of Derrida's thought, while Sterling just smacks the nail home with some quite handy (if a bit simplified) summary. Both are good reads in their own right, and Sterling's is actually funny, which is something I'm sure Derrida would have appreciated. Philosophy should have a sense of humor.