Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Jacques Derrida

"God the king does not know how to write, but that ignorance or incapacity only testifies to his sovereign independence. He has no need to write. He speaks, he says, he dictates, and his word suffices. Whether a scribe from his secretarial staff then adds the supplement of a transcription or not, that consignment is always in essence secondary." (Derrida, "Plato's Pharmacy")

I was taken aback, and saddened, to hear of the death of Jacques Derrida. Since reading him in college, I have held the unconventional view that he was a good writer--even, at times, a terribly clear one--and an enjoyable read regardless of your politics or ontology. Derrida brought fun into philosophy for me. The idea of interrogating Greek pharmacies, or using postcards as critical media, or re-interpreting age old maxims and laws as questions and riddles, testifies to how much fun it is to think about thought, speech and writing.

Derrida was one of the relatively few figures I'd grown to love in philosophy before discovering them again in rhetoric. And therein lay part of the reason for my enchantment with him. Besides being enjoyable (see my story of the class discussion on deconstruction below), Derrida instantiated a theme that Rob Tucker, then at Long Beach, brought up on the second or third day of my very first grad seminar class. The idea is this: Philosophy traditionally seeks certainty while rhetoric, from the beginning, displays a methodological respect for uncertainty. Since the object of rhetoric, persuasion, is infinitely subjective even while occasionally surrendering to a formula or principle, the study of rhetoric cannot too strongly concern itself with consistency, predictability, etc. While one side of Communication Studies devotes itself to quantitative studies and experiments, rhetoric's commitment to uncertainty is firmly established even in most of its ancient and classical manifestations.

No surprise, then, that most rhetoricians I know share a desire for and commitment to liberal (and in some cases participatory) democratic politics. Philosophy, or at least a common strain of it, is anti-uncertainty and hence, albeit subtly, anti-democratic. And no surprise that Derrida was part of our introductory survey of rhetorical theory. So we studied Gorgias...Cicero...Aristotle...a bunch of medieval guys...Campbell, Burke, Perlman, and now Derrida and Habermas. Two of my classmates and I were assigned to present a lecture on Derrida on rhetoric. Using power point (the only time I ever used it; one of us was in advertising and knew all the bells and whistles) we explained deconstruction in its simplest terms with moving pictures of cartoon words. Does "pines" refer to trees, or could it mean loneliness? How can we put the dominant meaning of something on the bottom, and center the marginalized one, even for a minute or so, to destabilize the whole foundation and remind us of the precariousness of meaning? The three of us had fun playing with meaning, and it provided me a moment of enjoyment among two fairly unenjoyable years, and I was reminded of a time, back as an undergraduate at BYU, enveloped in philosophy and the Student Review, when deconstruction and Marxism were complimentary, enjoyable political strategies.

Derrida still manages to escape what is now, for me, a comprehensive abandonment and critique of postmodern politics. He openly respected Marxism, was capable of seeing the USSR for what it really was, didn't buy into the various ways in which the abandonment of universal meaning feeds the commodification of culture. As an Algerian and a Jew he understood both colonialism and prejudice in senses so deep that arguments against oppression became enthemymatic foundations of Derrida's style and content.

Dana Cloud has eloquently pointed out that materialism isn't incompatable with the most important lessons of poststructuralism, concerning an awareness of the precariousness of form and the sense of wonder involved in theorizing. Likewise, I always felt that I would very much like to make a world for the Jacques Derridas, the Michels, Jurgens, and Emmanuels, where they would be free to create a politics of uncertainty without being hijacked by power, class divisions, and instrumental rationality. Of course, all of those thinkers would respond that in making such a world I would likely ignore the ways in which power and hierarchy diffuse themselves into language, interpersonal relations, bureaucracy, and ethics. Like the others, Derrida's sympathy for the socialist project was tempered by his suspicion of socialist (and especially Marxist) self-certainty.

75 is way too young to die. Derrida, like Levinas, struck me as friendly and deeply loving at the core of everything he wrote and said publicly. He cheerfully kicked John Searl's ass in their debate over meaning in Limited Inc. (although the clowns at Utah didn't see it that way as they fawned over the comparatively meanspirited Searl when he visited there). He painstakingly researched and composed the thick, beautiful, Joyce-like Politics of Friendship which may, in a few years be rediscovered and utilized to lay the foundations of a new ethic of care. He was friendly to the thousands of students in Southern California who would journey to see him lecture at UC Irvine. He remained friendly to everyone, it seems, in the face of some very unfriendly commentaries and dismissals. Some of you might remember when Allen Bloom and his half-talented entourage of neocons spent that week at BYU back in '90 (or was it '91?). Bloom or Stanley Rosen, I can't remember, said "Well, we should always remember Derrida was a C student." Yeah, I thought, and you guys are all crypto-fascists afraid to publicly admit your homosexuality. Derrida had a field day with his adversaries, but always respected them--a goodness I know I lack.

So I say goodbye to a friend who was always willing to be an entertaining fellow traveler, and occasionally, when I needed to be reminded not to be so sure, so dogmatic, a teacher as well. In a way, he mystified this rigid, working class student, and I embraced the confusion and learned to read a lot of it, and even write a bit. I associate his words and ideas with smiles and laughter in classrooms, and we need more of that...perhaps also in radical politics.


Anonymous said...

Help me Dude, I'm lost.

I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw Elvis in the supermarket yesterday.

No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender".

He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a shiny, new plasmatv to go with that blue suede sofa of yours.

But Elvis said I, In the Ghetto nobody has a plasma tv .

Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger then I'm gonna go home and ask Michael Jackson to come round and watch that waaaay cool surfing scene in Apocalypse Now on my new plasma tv .

And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . .

"You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on "

Strange day or what? :-)

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