Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On Deconstruction in America by Benoit Peeters



When he started using the term ‘deconstruction’, Derrida had not in the slightest imagined that it would have such an impact – it even became, if we are to believe Francois Cusset, ‘the most bankable product ever to emerge on the market of academic discourses.  In Derrida’s eyes, it was a conceptual tool, but not in the slightest ‘a master word’.  By 1984, he was already acknowledging this, in a somewhat negative way: “Were I not so frequently associated with this adventure of deconstruction, I would risk, with a smile, the following hypothesis:  America is deconstruction. In this hypothesis, America would be the proper name of deconstruction in progress, its family name, its toponymy, its language and its place, is principal residence.’

Jean-Joseph Goux – who had known Derrida well in France, but then lost sight of him for several years before running up against him in the United States – was struck by the contrast between the French Derrida and the American Derrida. 

Even physically, the change was very evident.  In the United States, Derrida always seem to me to be more radiant and imposing.  The way he had become a kind of star – which never happened in France – of course played a part in this.  At the start of the 1980s, many departments had  been won over by ‘French Theory’ and Derrida’s thought. It had all started in French departments, then those of comparative literature.  But architecture, aesthetics, and law soon became receptive. The ideas of deconstruction, which made it possible to create bridges between disciplines, aroused immense enthusiasm.  This was the period when ‘cultural studies’ really became important. Many professors demanded that their students position themselves vis-a-vis Derrida.  This became a mandatory first stage, whatever the subject.  These sudden crazes are a very American phenomena.  .  . The only domain that remained really hostile to deconstruction was philosophy, a fact that lay behind a certain number of misunderstandings and false trails.  For access to Derrida’s work was often without the first-hand philosophical knowledge that was necessary.  Many professors, and even more students, had no previous philosophical training and approached Plato, Kant, or Heel through what Derrida said about them.

This is also the opinion of Rodolphe Gasche, one of Derrida’s first disciples, in his book The Tain of the Mirror.  In his view, Derrida’s oeuvre is profoundly and self-evidently philosophical; if the literary angle is highlighted, in cannot fail to be distorted.  But according to others, the main contribution of deconstruction is of a very different kind.  This is the position ardently put forward by Avital Ronell in Fighting Theory, her book of interviews with Anne Dufourmantelle:

One can’t imagine how whited-out the acedemic corridor was when Derrida arrived on the American scene.  There was really no room for deviancy, not even for a quaint aberration or psychoanalysis.  Besides offering up luminous works that bore his signature, Derrida cleared spaces that looked like obstacle courses for anyone who did not fit the professional profile at the time. He practiced, whether consciously or not, a politics of contamination.  His political views, refined and, by our measure, distinctly leftist, knew few borders and bled into the most pastoral sites and hallowed grounds of higher learning.  Suddenly color was added to the university – color and sassy women, something that would  not easily be forgiven […] Derrida blew into our town-and-gown groves with proto-feminist energy, often, and a great cost to the protocols of philosophical gravity, passing as a woman.

The alliance with a new generation of  ‘supersexy, bold, bizarre women who showed up like surfers on the waves of ‘French Theory’ was, in Ronell’s eyes, one of the keys to the movement’s success: they found this theory was one they ‘could live and breathe, whereas departments of philosophy – but not only these departments – are relatively unlivable for women and minorities. One of the first such women was Gayatri Spivak: having translated and prefaced On Grammatology, she became the founding mother of postcolonial studies on minorities p- black, Mexican, Asian or ‘subaltern.  Her ideas – like those of Drucilla Cornell, Cynthia Chase, and Shoshana Felman – were of great importance for major theoreticians such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler, who created gender studies and then queer studies, attempting to explore ‘all the intermediary zones of sexual identity, any place where it became blurred’.

Books like Parages, Shibboleth and Ulysses Gramophone are demanding works, with a rhythm all their own. They fall neither within philosophy nor within literary criticism.  Most journalists in France said nothing about them and readers were few and far between. In L’Autre Journal, Catherine David aptly summarized the prevailing opinion:

The rumor is pitiless: Derrida has gone too far. You can’t read him any more.  Even the philosophers can’t follow him.  Some of them admit as much with an ambiguous smile.  Others wonder what he is getting up to –this thinker who once set the tone for French intellectual fashion by placing linguistics at the heart of philosophy and who now persists in losing himself in the thickets of a disconcerting hermeticism […] His books have always been difficult, but at least in the old days you knew what he was talking about: philosophy. Since, let’s say, The Post Card, we don’t know any more. He claims that philosophy is also transmitted in the form of love letters, postage stamps, telephone kiosks. He mixes everything up!

Yet for her part, David was convinced that, while it is difficult to interpret Derrida, he can perfectly easily be read:

For this, you need to agree to read him the same way you dream, without any instruction manual, with jumps, drops, lapses, open questions.  Patiently .  .  . […] It’s not, as it would be for an ordinary reading, about ‘understanding’. […] It’s about something else, a meticulous path of thought, a contemplation of the detail, the letter, the time of silence. […] In this period with its love of straight lines and short cuts, when common sense has re-established its dominion over the kingdom of thought, slowness and curves as magnified by Derrida have become the modern form of philosophical courage.

While  nobody much bothered about Derrida in France, his fame in America continued to grow. After the death of Paul de Man and removal from the scene at Yale, Derrida’s presence at the Irvine campus of the University of California every spring throughout the 90s ensured that the Department of Critical Theory became the most famous in the whole United States, attracting students from more or less everywhere.

Derrida was indeed  becoming something of a star, but he was first and foremost a full-time teacher, as attentive as he had always been. As David Carroll recalls:

He gave an open course to all students in social science and humanities.  Many of those following his seminar were registered in history or anthropology.  Only the people who ran the philosophy department tried to dissuade their students from going.  Eventually, some did take the plunge, but those who stayed soon changed subject.  Even at Irvine, it was impossible to do a philosophy thesis if you’d been labeled a Derridean.  .  .

The seminar was his laboratory, an opportunity for him to prepare and test out his new ideas and over the years his discourse freed itself from all academic rhetoric. Indeed, he would often treat the philosophical tradition in a zigzag way, indulging in several digressions.  In ‘Answering the secret’, in 1991-2, he focused especially on Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville, but also referred to “The figure in the carpet’ by Henry James, Raymond Roussel by Michel Foucault, Cle by Annie Leclerc, the  Metamorphoses  of Ovid, the Book of Job, and the Gospel According to Saint Mathew – not to mention Freud, Heidegger, and Potocka. The two following years were devoted to bearing witness to works by Kierkegaard, Proust, Celan, Blanchot, and Lyotard, with more unexpected excurses ino Hugo, Hemingway, Antonioni’s Blow-up, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, and the trial of Rodney King in Los Angeles.

Yves Charnet, only just twenty when he first came to hear Derrida,  had described to perfection the way he was dazzled:

That voice gently started to weave its spell – on each of the fervent women and each of the captivated men listening - , a spell that would remain, for me, as it were, the signature tune of the shaman of thought.  Jacques Derrida would never cease to turn, for the two hours that each memorable session lasted, to turn around his thought. And yes, to make thought turn. American men and women, Japanese men and women, German men and women, young people from all over the globalized world composed that impressive and enthralled audience. […] I must insist on the element of personal beauty, of individual splendor, which contributed to the lightning-bolt effect of those words whose poetic energy pierced us.  That way of centering the pedagogic space on the body – a body involved in the art of teaching to such an extent that pupils had the physical impression of living through a passion of the word.


There was always a big audience; even his supposedly closed seminar was packed .But this didn’t prevent Derrida from spending a great deal of time seeing students individually and discussing heir papers, their theses, and their personal plans with them.  He was supposed to be available in his office six hours a week, but he always spent longer than that so he could give each student as much time as possible.

Since the end of the 1960s, the United States had been Derrida’s real stamping ground: the place where his presence had always been most evident ( first at Yale, then at Irvine, then Chicago, NYU and on campuses all over the country), and from where most of his world-wide influence stemmed.  From 1995, thanks to three new works – Specters of Marx, Force of Law, and Archive Fever – there was an even greater upsurge of interest for his work. Even though Derrida registered a certain irritation when there was talk of a ‘political turn’ or ‘ethical turn’ in his work, there is no denying that new themes now occupied center stage: justice, witness, hospitality, forgiveness, lying .  .  .there was no real break, as there was in Wittgenstein or Heidegger, but it is difficult  not to see a series of inflections and slippages. The de Man affair had probably helped him overcome his reserve.


I am simply trying to pursue with some constancy a thinking that has been engaged around the same aporias for a long time. The question of ethics, law or politics hasn’t arisen unexpectedly, as when you come off a bend. And the way it is treated is not always reassuring for ‘morale’ – and perhaps because it asks too much of it.


The triumph of “French Theory’ and deconstruction sometimes had its downsides. As if he were a victim of the effects of his own thinking.  Derrida found himself accused of being too conservative and insufficiently committed.  Avital Ronell emphasized this aspect: ‘He was male, a white, a seducer, a philosopher: all potential flaws that might lead him to being seen as on the side of traditional power. He was starting to become a victim of his own categories, his own war on phallogocentrism.’  His alliance with several radical women seems, in this respect, to have been a valuable plus.

At New York University, throughout the last years, Ronell and Derrida gave seminars together.  She introduced the session, going back over elements that had struck her at the previous sessions and adding a few references.  After Jacques’s paper, she took over and asked a few questions to get the discussion started.


Everywhere else, Derrida was the sole master of his seminar.  But at NYU, he was, so to speak, my guest, and he accepted my way of doing things.  The situation was very different at Irvine, where he carried on with the seminar he had started at the Hautes Etudes.  At New York, he was presenting new material and his approach was still very open.  One year, he’s chosen as his title the single word ‘Forgiveness’; I didn’t much like this, and I changed it to ‘Violence and Forgiveness’. When we met just before the seminar, I told him I’d changed the title, since ‘Forgiveness’ by itself didn’t work in English. He was really not very pleased: “Look, Avital, how could you take a decision like that without consulting me?  It’s just not on.’ But at the start of the session, he said completely the opposite, explaining that the word ‘violence’ was absolutely necessary.  I said I had tried to drop it, and that I was completely wrong to do so.  There wasn’t a trace of irony in his voice. And all I could do was explain to the audience why I’d wanted to drop the word.  In the final analysis, each of us had committed a violent act on the other, but this had enabled us to move forward and produce thought .  .  . In the last years, he felt that I was overtaking him ‘on his left’ and sometimes this made him nervous.  One day, he told me that he didn’t feel at ease having my book Crack Wars in his luggage when he crossed the border. He said he’d be arrested as a dealer – it’s true I was born in Prague! – and this kind of publication could wreck his American career.  ‘At all events,’ he told me sometimes, ‘they’ll hold me responsible for this kind of language, saying that it all comes from me!”


Throughout his long life Derrida became increasingly aware that he was practicing philosophy more and more as an artist, feeling closer to writers, painters or architects than to academics

 “Let us read (Derrida’s works) lightly, with a nimbleness that is, if possible, as subtle as his own, simply, guided by the playfulness of the words, as the full sense of his sentence tremble sweetly and and bears it on towards the next. The usual coarse dynamism that leads a sentence to the next seems in Derrida to have been replaced by a very a  magnetism, found not in the words, but beneath them, almost under the page.” For  Jean Genet it was important to ‘read gently. Laugh gently as [Derrida’] words make their unexpected entrance.  Accept above all what is offered to us in good grace: poetry.  Then the meaning will be handed to us, in reward, and very simply, as in a garden.'

Roland Barthes also paid tribute to Derrida, in a short letter to Jean Ristat:

I belong to another generation than Derrida and probably his readers; so Derrida’s work has had its impact on me, in the middle of life, of work; the semiological enterprise was already fully formed in me and partly achieved, but it risked staying imprisoned, enthralled by the phantasm of its scientificity: Derrida was one of those who helped me to understand what was at issue (philosophically, ideologically) in my own work: he knocked the structure off balance, he opened up the sign; for us, he is the one who unpicked the end of the chain.  His literary interventions (on Artaud, on Mallarme, on Bataille) have been decisive, and by that I mean: irreversible. We are indebted to him for new words, active words (and in this respect his writing is violent, poetic) and a sort of incessant deterioration of our intellectual comfort (the state in which we feel too comfortable about what we think).  Finally, there is in his work something that is kept silent, and fascinating: his solitude comes from what he is going to say.




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