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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Jacques Derrida: Deconstructionist Genius or Self-Bamboozled Fraud?


Today's Buggy Topic Was Inspired by . . .

...By a stimulating blog-article, published recently in the New York Review of Books, that dealt with the life of the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida . . . the famed creator of deconstructism whose voluminous writings have been widely admired in post-modernist circles since the 1970s.  Prof bug left some lengthy commentary in reply that appeared in the comments section.  Alas, they were noticeably truncated, and so the buggy guy has decided to post them all here. 

Well, maybe "here" is misleading.  The full buggy commentary will actually appear in the next bugged-out post. 

Meanwhile, to make sense of Derrida's deconstruction-work, please read the rest of today's comments.  Note that at their end, you'll find the link to the NYRB blog about Derrida's life.  Be sure to read it--- even if you skip the comments section there --- before you read the next buggy post in reply to it.)

What the NYRB Blogger Tried To Do, And With Some Success:

Tersely put, in a review of a new biography of Derrida, the NYRB blogger sought to illuminate the tangled complexities of deconstructionist theory and methods that he spawned from the 1960s on by showing how they reflected his personal life-long struggles as a rebellious intellectual outsider and high-voltage enemy of prejudice and discrimination. . . which he and his numerous post-modernist devotees claimed to be embedded in all dominant Western thought and practices since the time of the ancient Greeks.  In other words, for the last 2500 years. 

How, specifically, did these views of Derrida reflect his own life-long personal struggles?   

The Fuller Answer,  

. . . Needless to add, requires that you read the NYRB blogger's book review.   

Here, just in passing, note that Derrida was born in 1930 as a French citizen to a French family in Algeria.  With the Nazi conquest of France itself in 1940, the German-collaborating Vichy regime extended its fascist-like authority to most of France's colonies.  Algeria was no exception, and it was there that Derrida, still a young boy, rebelled for the first time against the vicious anti-Semitic laws applied by the Vichy-controlled colonial rulers in education.  Specifically, Jews were barred from attending the prestigious French-speaking schools.  Only 12 at the time, Derrida was obliged to attend an inferior makeshift Jewish school.  An intellectually preconscious youth with a ranging mind, he bristled with disgust and hatred of the wider, virulent anti-Semitism that he and the rest of the Algerian Jewish community now encountered everywhere in daily life, whether perpetrated by bureaucrats or among both the Arab or French-speaking communities.  For that matter, Derrida himself was physically assaulted a few times by both Arab and French-speaking hoodlums. 

You can guess the outcome.  For the rest of his life, Derrida hated and sought to combat all forms of bigotry and discrimination--- whether religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, or class-based; and much to his credit. 

 Click the "continue" button below:

Something Else To Worth Noticing About His Youthful Years 

Specifically, in 1947, Derrida moved to Paris to continue his studies.  Once there, he quickly came to mistrust and rebel against the stifling, highly regulated French curriculum.  His philosophy professors were no exception; to his ranging, unsettled mind, they appeared as little more than pretentious, self-satisfied purveyors of hand-me-down ideas.  Eventually, after several setbacks, he eventually managed to climb up the academic hierarchy in France. 

And yet Derrida never had much intellectual influence in that country or the rest of Continental Europe . . . especially compared with Michel Foucault and other fashionable French thinkers from the late 1960s on. 

So Where Did His Fame and Influence Flourish?

Above all in the English-speaking countries, and especially the USA  --- where Derrida held lengthy visiting posts at Yale (in literature) and then at UC Irvine.  His celebrity-like fame, observe swiftly though, thrived in journalism and in the humanities disciplines like literature, the arts of all sorts, feminist and ethnic-studies, and to an extent as well in historical studies and sociology.  But never in English-speaking philosophy  . . . just the opposite. 

Rightly or wrong, Derrida --- depending on your own interests and tolerance for tangled  post-modernist writing full of neologisms, syntactical convolution, and endless rambling mind-numbing word-play --- has been regarded in those philosophical circles as a confused and  obscurantist poseur and fraud.  (About the only major exception was Richard Rorty, probably the most famous philosopher world-wide in the 1980s and 1990s.  Even Rorty, though, didn't deny that Derrida tortured both the French and English languages.)

Some Links and Clarification

For the widely held views in English-speaking philosophy everywhere of not just of Derrida --- but all the other well-known French post-modernist thinkers like Michel Foucault --- here are some critical evaluations by well-known American philosophers with very different professional interests and publications.  They are all well-written and both illuminating and fun to read :

The exchanges between a deconstructionist-defender and a harsh critic, the well-known philosopher John Searle.  Click here

Thomas Nagel, The Sleep of Reason: Click here 

Brian Leiter, The Derrida Industry: Click here

Michael Rosen, "On Derrida".  Click here:

(Note that Leiter and Rosen are anything but antagonistic to what has been called Continental philosophy in English-speaking philosophy, a matter discussed later in this buggy post. On the contrary, they are the joint editors of the Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy  (2010) and treat the great Continental philosophers --- meaning German and French ones over the last two centuries --- with respect and insight.)

And finally, here's an hilarious video on all this: click here   


1) Start with the Core Destructionist Claim: A Domineering and Violent Linguistic Hierarchy, Full of Self-Entangling Confusion, Resides at the Base of All Western Thought

Yes, begin here: according to Derrida and his followers, all language --- at any rate, in Western civilization (other civilizations are ignored or apparently don't suffer from what Derrida calls logocentrism) --- is invariably shot-through with elusive ambiguities, confusion, and self-refuting contradictions.  Any text's claimed "truths" are really biased fictions . . . only (to use a confusing but typical deconstruction concept) for these fictions to have been forgotten and so figure as written-in-solid-concrete forever.

The result of all this confused, self-contradictory language and fictive true-claims, dubbed as logocentrism in deconstructionism?  To put it bluntly, in standard deconstruction views, a "violent linguistic hierarchy" has allegedly prevailed in Western civilization --- used in a taken-for-granted manner ---for a good 2500 years, in other words way back to the ancient Greeks.  Yes, on the Derrida-inspired view, it has prevailed in Western language-usage from the days of Plato and Aristotle on, dominating Western thought, accordingly, from the start of all European philosophy, sciences, art, and literature. 

2) How, Allegedly,  Does the Violent Linguistic Hierarchy Operate in Practice?

For Derrida and his followers, all language-usage operates by means of binary word-opposites.  In all Western languages, logocentrism has entailed the last 2500 years the "privileging" of a predictable set of words that the great thinkers, with few exceptions, have automaton-like employed over their opposites.  Such as: logic over intuition;  reason over feelings;  speech over writing;  man over woman;  rulers over the ruled;  majority European peoples over ethnic-racial minorities;  bosses over employees;   religious true-believers over non-believers;  state-enforced religion over dissenters (say, Jews in Christian lands);  intellectual conformists over dissenters;  elites over the masses, and so on.

The upshot? 

Since no thinking can be done without the use of a language, virtually all the great thinkers in Western life have done little more --- whether intentionally or more likely unwittingly --- to rationalize and justify the dominant real-life hierarchies of power everywhere in Western civilization, past or present. 

That has been the case in all prevailing politics, legal systems, economic life, religious life, journalism, and all forms of education and intellectual centers.  With, you understand, only a few exceptions like Socrates. (Remember: these are Derrida's views, not prof bug's.)  Otherwise, for over two millennia, the inescapable usage of language for all manner of thought by the influential in Western life for the last two millennia-plus has spawned and sustained little more than  mind-spinning, mind-controlling belief-systems and  practices.  The inevitable beneficiaries?  The dominant elites in each every Western society over time.  The inevitable losers?  All the weak and helpless, power-wise . . . dubbed by deconstructionists and other post-modernists the subordinate and excluded "Other(s)"

3) Who, More Specifically, Have These Marginalized and Oppressed Inferiors Been? 

For Derrida and in all postmodernist circles, the exploited inferiors are  the Others . . . all those just marginalized and lorded over by the powerful  from time immemorial but, in effect, essentially "excluded" from any noticeable presence in dominant Western thought and practices.  Meaning, above all: women, ethnic and racial minorities, religious and intellectual dissenters, and (to repeat) the poor and weak everywhere --- including, observe quickly, in conquered colonies too.  And, these days --- though hardly in ancient Greece ---homosexuals and bisexuals as well.           

All these excluded and oppressed Others, recall, have been shoved virtually out of sight for the dominant groups in Western societies because the most influential thinkers in those societies have privileged the opposite words in all their linguistic usage.  Or so deconstructionists contend.



Oh Oh  What with the length of the buggy post to this point --- we're about half way through to the end --- he'll stop here and ask you to continue in the next post.