Saturday, December 22, 2012

Derrida and Deconstruction

The rehabilitation of Jacques Derrida has begun.

With a new biography written by Benoit Peeters, the founder of “deconstruction” is being prepped for sainthood. An excerpt was published in The Daily Beast.

Why would this mild-mannered, timorous philosopher need to have his reputation rehabilitated? After all, his philosophical practice proposed nothing more than a new way to read texts.

Derrida gained fame and fortune by teaching a generation of academics how to deconstruct texts. He was not looking for hidden meanings but for traces of the demonic influence of Western metaphysics, ontology and phallogocentrism.

He was teaching students to purge texts of the elements that had conspired to corrupt the goodness that had existed in pre-Socratic philosophy.

What could be wrong with that?

As it happens, a lot.

In his Daily Beast article Peeters seems most interested in obfuscating the basis of Derrida’s philosophy. He tells a charming story of how Derrida discovered the concept of deconstruction while pondering Martin Heidegger’s notion of destruktion.

Apparently, Derrida believed that the French would find the concept more congenial if it contained a “con.” I will refrain from speculating about why this would be so. If I were to examine the many meanings of the French word, con, this would cease to be a “family” blog.

In his own way Derrida was a man of letters. Neither he nor his hagiographer Peeters seems to think that the world of letters impacts the real world.

Martin Heidegger would have begged to differ. When he was an academic and an administrator in 1930s Germany, Heidegger wholeheartedly supported Adolph Hitler. In his 1935 book, Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger declared that the best realization of his philosophy lay in Hitler’s Third Reich. 

It wasn’t an ambiguous statement. After the war ended and the full horror of the Holocaust was revealed, Heidegger stubbornly refused to recant his Nazism. He explained that doing so would have meant disavowing his own philosophy.

When he published a new edition of the Introduction to Metaphysics in 1948 Heidegger kept in the line about the Third Reich.

After the war Heidegger was banned from teaching. Happily for him a group of French philosophers got together to get the ban lifted.

Derrida was not around at the time. By the time he burst on the scene, in the mid 1960s, most people had lost interest in the question.

The further removed everyone was the easier it was for Derrida to make Heideggerian thought, that is, disguised Nazi thought, respectable.

For those who continue to deny that Heidegger was a Nazi thinker, I recommend Richard Wolin’s masterful analysis in his book: The Politics of Being.

In his Daily Beast article Peeters says nothing about this aspect of Derrida’s career.

Whatever Derrida imagined, we have a fairly good idea of what Heidegger meant by destruktion. When you cut through the mumbo jumbo and the double talk, you discover that he was a great admirer of the street theatre practiced by the Nazi Stormtroopers who were led by Ernst Rohm.

If you can see through Derrida’s obfuscation you see that his effort to ferret out alien cultural elements in texts, the better to isolate and to neutralize them has an uncanny resemblance to the Nazi practice of isolating and neutralizing Jewish cultural influence in Germany and in the nations they occupied.

One is led to conclude, regrettably, that deconstruction is philosophy-speak for pogrom.

One might want to forgive Derrida. He seems not to have known what he was doing.

Yet, when Heidegger’s Nazi past was laid out in 1987 in Victor Farias’ book, Heidegger and Nazism, Derrida and his minions rushed to defend Heidegger. To their minds Heidegger’s Nazi allegiance was incidental to his contribution to the Western philosophy.

No one cared that Heidegger himself thought that there was no significant separation between his political practice and his philosophy.

It may have been pure happenstance, but the man who was most responsible for Derrida’s fame within the world of American academia, a Yale professor named Paul de Man had  worked for a Nazi newspaper and had authored Nazi propaganda in occupied Belgium. For most of his career de Man had hidden this detail, but it was eventually discovered. 

For a full account of the episode, I recommend David Lehman’s book, Signs of the Times.

Among de Man’s wartime writings we find this:

 … it is sufficient to discover a few Jewish writers under Latinized pseudonyms for all contemporary production to be considered polluted and evil. This conception entails rather dangerous consequences... it would be a rather unflattering appreciation of western writers to reduce them to being mere imitators of a Jewish culture which is foreign to them.

De Man was saying that he wanted to rid Western literature of what he saw as pernicious and alien Jewish influences. He seems to have been especially torqued over the fact that some Jewish writers were hiding their identities, and thus their Judaism, behind pseudonyms. He believed that it was a good thing to identify such people and to denounce them, the better to rid the body of Western literature of their influence.

It is chilling to see how hagiographer Peeters describes the first meeting between Derrida and Paul de Man.

For it was also from the United States that another warm letter arrived, announcing an equally fruitful relationship: that in which Paul de Man told Derrida how much he had been “thrilled and interested” by Of Grammatology. He expected this work to help in the “clarification and progression of [his] own thinking,” something which Derrida’s Baltimore paper, and their first conversations, had already suggested. As they talked over the breakfast table at the conference the previous year, the two men had realized that they were both interested in their different ways in the Essay on the Origin of Languages. This was the origin of a friendship which became deep and enduring: after this first encounter, Derrida would say, nothing ever separated them, “not even a hint of disagreement.”

When de Man’s perfidy was revealed, Derrida rushed to defend him. He wanted to remain loyal to a friend and refused to accept that there was any connection between de Man the propagandist and de Man the Yale professor.

We leave the last word to Boston University professor Jeffrey Mehlman who stated that there were: “grounds for viewing the whole of deconstruction as a vast amnesty project for the politics of collaboration during World War II.”


David Foster said...

It would be useful to create a Venn diagram with two circles: academics who collaborated with Fascism/Naziism, or at least were extreme appeasers, and academics who made excuses for Soviet and Chinese Communism.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

And then we can ask ourselves how these academics and their students feel about Israel today?

Unknown said...

Please read Derrida, especially his work on Heidegger, before making these kind of observations again. This subject is too important not to give it your full attention. The fundamental gesture of Nazism is after all as present as ever the whole world over, one might even say there are, even now today, men and women of all kinds, professional philosophers and window cleaners alike- perhaps even some life coaches- repeating it in the name of homeland, spirit, family etc just as they ever did.

No one addressed this question more eloquently and honestly than Derrida, the question of Heidegger.

Derrida's whole opus must be understood in the context of his forced exclusion from school by the Nazi regime and his Judaism.

If you are genuinely interested in these questions a good place to start might be Peeter's Biography.

If I had to sum up his work 'in a nutshell' it is that the world of letters is inseperable from politics, that writing and speaking are political activities first- (actually, not first, rather the question of origin is 'undecidable' and to claim an absolute origin for language is itself a metaphysical gesture, and the heart of the 'metaphysics of presence'):

this is the crux of 'there is no outside the text'.

I know it is acceptable in some circless to dismiss him as difficult and wilfully obscure, however he is no harder to understand than Wittgenstein or Davidson or any other serious philosopher from either 'tradition', if as with those thinkers you take the time to read him properly - which ideally would involve the necessary background reading also.

A good place to start might be 'Force of Law: the mystical foundation of Authority', or 'The Ends of Man'. Both are available on the internet- Google is your friend.

Sincerely yours


an interested observer

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Bob for a thoughtful comment. As you suggest your point has nothing to do with the role Derrida thinks that Heidegger plays in his philosophy. And it has nothing to do with the place this or that text has within the context of Derrida's philosophy.

I was trying to say that Heidegger's political actions and his assertions about the relationship between his philosophy and his actions must be central to any examination of his philosophy. It is simply not possible to read the Nazism out of the philosophy, as many of Heidegger's readers have tried to do. Derrida's personal experience is simply not relevant to Heidegger's relationship with the Third Reich.

Unknown said...

Thanks for replying.

'I was trying to say that Heidegger's political actions and his assertions about the relationship between his philosophy and his actions must be central to any examination of his philosophy.'

Would bread baked by a Nazi still be bread, and would it still taste good. I have a Volkswagen, it is a fine car. To examine Heidegger's work critically and in an academic spirit, as philosophy and as a political gesture (are the two really that distinguishable) is commendable. To completely dismiss his work because he was a Nazi is to ignore the fact that Heidegger's vulgarisation of his work for petty gain, his betrayal of friends, and his support of the Nazi party, reveal a flaw in that man, and that philosophy, that is common to philosophy as such, if it is not vigilant in its attempts to avoid answering the questions it has always tried to answer. Yet serious academic attempts to read his philosophy as philosophy have to start somewhere, with his philosophy, and the work itself. Heidegger is in some respects a convenient stooge, the truth is that many would act as he did, he was a man, as were the Nazis. The heirs to a long tradition of anti-semetism in Europe, and violence and prejudice not limited to anti-semetism or even Europe.. Maybe the time will come when these things are gone from the world, we have a long way to go now I am sure. If the Holocaust had been perpetrated solely by grave looking men in uniform with strange beliefs, and reactionary philosophy professors, then we would be a lot closer to this goal, unfortunately there is a proto-nazi willing to smash windows and build ghettos in the souls of most men given the circumstances. Is this the right time to mention Palestine or Israel? (My comment 'Palestine or Israel', Palestine and Israel, because there are surely proto- Nazis on both sides of that wall, and like the men who did horrendous things and then went home at Christmas to sing Christian songs with their famillies, beleiving themselves just and good after doing unspeakable things, none of them are purely evil. If only this were so).

My point regarding Derrida, was that Derrida's treatment of Heidegger was never at the expense of political action (to comment is to act), and explored this relationship between what Heidegger wrote and what he did, in an original way, by deconstructing the distinction between thought and speach, speach and act: 'There is no outside the text'.

Derrida's personal experience is relevant to Heidegger's relationship with the Third Reich, because Heidegger's relationship with the Third Reich was also a relationship with every Jew living at the time, including Derrida.

janice said...

i must thank you for the efforts you've put in penning this blog.